San Luis Obispo looks to curb frequent offenders

Overwhelmed by the number of misdemeanor cases from the repeatedly arrested, the city of SLO has set up a specialty court that is rehabilitative as well as punitive

acornejo@thetribunenews.comAugust 3, 2013 

Wesley Laguna, 50, sits on a green bench at the corner of Higuera and Nipomo streets in downtown San Luis Obispo, his face haggard, reeking of the booze that is killing him.
He has been a fixture downtown for more than a decade, begging for change to buy his next drink and eating the leftovers that passersby toss his way. The demons that haunt him are visible in the dark shadows beneath his eyes.

In the past year, Laguna has been arrested 164 times for petty crimes such as trespassing, being drunk in public, possessing open containers and littering. Ten years ago, he was arrested for a more serious crime: assault with a deadly weapon.

Laguna is one of 10 chronic offenders in San Luis Obispo who continually consume police resources, bog down the justice system and fill beds at the local jail and emergency rooms.

San Luis Obispo police Chief Steve Gesell is on a crusade to change the way those cases are handled. He wants them off the streets but also knows that a jail cell isn’t the best solution.

“The citations we are issuing are only worth the paper they are written on,” Gesell said. “It all means nothing if there are not teeth involved.”

An endless cycle occurs: A ticket is issued, a court date is missed, a warrant is given and eventually — maybe — jail time results.

At one point, the court became so overwhelmed by the sheer volume of misdemeanor cases from the repeat offenders that it stopped issuing arrest warrants and began levying civil assessments instead.

The top 10 chronic offenders, the majority of them homeless, owe $122,889 in penalties. Yet they have no money — and no wages to garnish.

“I’ve got officers out there doing everything they possibly can to hold people accountable, only to find out there has been no follow-through,” Gesell said.

After months of intense meetings with court staff, county Drug and Alcohol Services, Mental Health Services, the Sheriff’s Office, the district attorney and Department of Social Services, a solution may be in the works: a specialty court that is both rehabilitative and punitive.

“There is a carrot-and-stick option for the defendants,” Gesell said. “Ideally we want someone to take the carrot and get the type of treatment that doesn’t involve incarceration. If they choose not to, then the judicial system needs to be punitive. In this county, we had a twig and a fraction of a carrot to work with.”

Familiar faces

Police Officers Jeremy Behrens and Jim Fellows are intimately acquainted with San Luis Obispo’s habitual offenders. 

The officers patrol the streets four days a week, canvassing areas riddled with drug use and making sure the transients prone to causing problems daily downtown stay in line.

“People don’t want to see this side of San Luis Obispo,” Behrens said.

There is no typical day for the two officers, who are part of a new Community Action Team that Gesell formed to combat transient issues.

One day, they might be scaling through creek beds to clear out homeless camps cited by park rangers, the next, assisting with a medical call for a drug overdose or mental break.

The partners know everything there is to know about Laguna: his personal and medical history, where he sleeps at night, the liquor store where he buys his booze and the emotions that flood his personality when he’s inebriated.

Only nine weeks into their new assignment, the officers also know the same details about all the other repeat offenders.

Pirate Paul has a ferocious side when he drinks. Alcoholic Donald “President” Regan is diabetic. Jessica “Jersey” Patterson is addicted to heroin. Ben Schaeffer is nice enough when he drinks beer, but vodka makes him mean.

At a recent morning briefing, the officers were told that Patterson had overdosed on heroin at 4:30 a.m. under a bridge by the creek.

The news was disheartening; both officers had envisioned her as one of their success stories. She’d been sober for days and was getting close to trading street life to go back to her home on the East Coast.

By 11 a.m. the same day, the officers ran into Patterson, hanging out in Mission Plaza, her face badly bruised and swollen like a grapefruit from falling after she overdosed. She’d been discharged from the hospital. 

As she stood there, clutching photographs of her children recently mailed to her, Fellows told her, “Keep looking at that when you feel tempted.”

The officers do a combination of enforcement and outreach by collaborating with social service providers, mental health crisis workers, the San Luis Obispo Superior Court, prosecutors and downtown businesses to seek long-term solutions for repeat offenders.

After leaving Patterson, Fellows’ characteristic smile had disappeared.

“This job can be heartbreaking for us,” he said.

Hours later, they ran into Patterson again under the Santa Rosa bridge, sleeping on a ratty, stained mattress.

They left her there to sleep, knowing that rousing her wouldn’t solve anything.

Two days later, with the help of probation, they had her arrested, hoping that would lead to rehabilitation.

“We knew that if left on the streets, she would probably overdose again,” Fellows said.

Hope for a solution

The goal of the new community court, and that of the Community Action Team, is to fix the links in a system that is clearly broken.

The collaboration of services is meant to help the people who want it but also to make sure that there are consequences for those people who continue to break the law.

The court mirrors similar efforts in San Diego, Santa Barbara and Ventura.

Sessions will be held two days a week, be overseen by Commissioner Stephen Sefton and follow a model similar to drug court.

A warrant, not a civil penalty, will be issued for people who are issued a citation but fail to appear in court. The San Luis Obispo Police Department will be notified. Instead of being taken directly to jail, violators will be taken to court, where an intervention will be staged to connect them with drug and alcohol or mental health resources.

Sheriff Ian Parkinson has dedicated up to 10 jail beds to provide cell space for offenders involved in the court.

Parkinson, who worked for the San Luis Obispo Police Department for 23 years, is well aware of the issues facing the city with chronic offenders.

“In some cases, I don’t know if there is a solution,” he said.

Laguna has been booked into County Jail 14 times in the past year. His last stint was for 72 days. Within a week after being released, he was taken to the emergency room twice and arrested again for public intoxication.

“He has no desire to get treatment while he is here,” Parkinson said. “But you can’t just lock him up and throw away the key.”

Parkinson said there is no easy fix, but trying the new court process may be heading in the right direction.

“Will it be successful? Maybe,” Parkinson said. “If not, we will try something else.”

In the meantime, it’s clear that issuing expensive fines to the homeless is futile.

“Civil assessments are a very effective tool for most people because eventually a hold is put on their license or they are contacted by a collection agency,” said Susan Matherly, executive officer of the courts. “But for people like these, the days blend together, and it’s just not an effective process for these folks. It’s time to take a holistic approach.”

Matherly has a stack of files on her desk detailing the criminal history of all of the top 10 offenders. And now, she knows them by name, too.

“We were just spinning our wheels,” Matherly said. “We are not going to just give up on these people. We are going to keep trying to help them. We have all of these people’s names on our minds.”

When they land in jail, she will call a drug and alcohol counselor to visit them before they are released. If that fails, Sister Theresa Harpin is called. Harpin founded a nonprofit called Restorative Partners, which brings community programs to people who are incarcerated.

Ultimately, the goal is to reduce the cost of the chronic cases and decrease crime.

“This is not just about open containers,” Capt. Chris Staley said. “There are other issues that come with it — criminal histories of assault, robbery, burglary, battery. Their main gig may be sitting around drinking all day, but there are a lot of things in their past that could make them more dangerous than just being the town drunk.”

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Reach AnnMarie Cornejo at 781-7939. Follow her at @a_cornejo on Twitter.

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