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A new program in San Luis Obispo County will give misdemeanor offenders a second chance

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If the plan works—and if it keeps in line with some other counties that have tried the same—San Luis Obispo County law enforcement officials believe they can take as many as 1,000 low-level misdemeanor cases out of court.

That would mean less prosecutor time devoted to filing cases for offenses such as petty theft, driving without a license, and possessing small amounts of certain drugs. It would mean youthful screw-ups won’t forever haunt people on job applications. And, ideally, it could mean that people caught for a first-time offense would be less likely to get tossed back into the legal system again.

“Once people have a criminal record, there’s less of an incentive to protect it because they’ve already gone through the system,” said SLO County District Attorney Dan Dow.

In other words, giving someone the chance to erase a misdemeanor offense from his or her record gives that person an incentive to keep the record unblemished; on the other hand, someone with a criminal record has less to lose.

As of April 1, certain misdemeanor offenses that would previously have landed someone in the District Attorney’s crosshairs will no longer carry the same punitive weight. The idea isn’t quite a get-out-of-jail-free card, but the idea is to give people a chance to amend mistakes before those mistakes get logged permanently and publicly.

“What we’re aiming for is to give the opportunity for these people to have a clean record so they’re eligible for employment when they’re done with their education,” Assistant District Attorney Lee Cunningham explained, adding that many of the qualifying misdemeanor cases involve students.

Local officials believe that in the first year, as many as 10 to 15 percent of the misdemeanor caseload can be kept out of courts, which equates to roughly 1,100 to 1,200 cases.

The so-called misdemeanor diversion program will be a first in SLO County, but similar programs have sprung up throughout the state for decades, when the Auburn-based Pacific Educational Services (PES) first began providing education and diversion programs aimed at cases of domestic violence. In the ’90s, the company expanded into misdemeanor diversion programs and a DUI program. The basic goal is to educate misdemeanor offenders and get them thinking about what led them to commit a crime, and how they might stay out of the courts in the future.

In the early days of PES, the office also doubled as a safe place for battered women to come and work, according to President Walter Stockman.

“We’ve been in the helping-people business for a long time,” he said.

District attorneys in about 15 counties throughout the state—including nearby Santa Barbara—have brought the company on to head diversionary programs. PES specifically touts one statistic when asked about its success rate. In Orange County, the company reported that the program there reduced recidivism rates from 22 percent to 6 percent, and Cunningham told New Times that officials in that county independently verified PES’s math.

In SLO County, the program is now offered to people who get picked up for nonviolent, first-time misdemeanor offenses. Cunningham said certain possession cases will no longer result in the DA filing charges. Possession of less than an ounce of marijuana can qualify, as can small amounts of methamphetamine. But he explained that heroin possession was specifically excluded from the diversionary program because of the typical offender who gets caught with the drug.

“The thinking is if you’ve worked your way up to using heroin, you’re probably far enough down the addiction road that these classes will not help you—even if it’s the first time that you’ve been caught,” Cunningham said.

Those arrested and who qualify for a program (which includes some subjectivity depending on the type of crime and level of criminal sophistication) won’t see their cases filed with the court. Instead, PES will contact the offender and offer the chance to enroll in a one-, two-, or three-day course—depending on the offense. People who take the class instead of the misdemeanor charge will pay $350 for a one-day class and $500 for multiple days, have to pay restitution if any is necessary, and complete the class. If they fail to pay the fee or restitution, or fail to complete the class in 60 days, the office will move forward with charges. And people who take the deal have five years before they’re eligible again.

The classes are led by trained PES facilitators, and PES Curriculum Director Diane Rosenberg said some participants come into the program angry, frustrated, and skeptical, but usually walk away with a different mindset.

“I will tell you that by 11 [a.m.], a good facilitator will have developed the type of rapport that people will talk openly,” Rosenberg said.

Additionally, the classes are live, in-person, and in a roundtable type format so participants can’t easily hang in the back of the room and hide.

Even combined with the legal fluctuations brought on by prison realignment in California and the 2014 voter initiative Proposition 47, Sheriff Ian Parkinson said in a statement to New Times that he has high hopes for the diversion program: “This isn’t about reducing the number of inmates at the County Jail; instead, its goal is to change people’s behaviors to keep them out of jail in the first place.”

 

Senior Staff Writer Colin Rigley can be reached at crigley@newtimesslo.com.

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