Community court worth a try

Program would give chronic offenders option to use services

letters@thetribunenews.comAugust 7, 2013 

We applaud efforts to find a more effective way to deal with the habitual offenders in downtown SLO whose repeat arrests — many for minor, alcohol-related offenses — are overwhelming the local criminal justice system.

Issuing a citation and ordering the accused to show up in court doesn’t work; they often fail to appear. And when they are put in jail, they typically reoffend soon after they’re released.

Fines are no deterrent either. As Tribune writer Ann-Marie Cornejo reported on Sunday, 10 chronic offenders collectively owe $122,889 in civil penalties for violations such as public intoxication and littering. One man, Curtis Swabb, has racked up nearly $41,000 in fines.

Because the offenders are, for the most part, homeless and unemployed, these fines are impossible to collect, since there are no wages to garnish.

Clearly, anew approach is needed. With that in mind, the San Luis Obispo Police Department is teaming with county Superior Court staff, Drug and Alcohol Services, Mental Health, the Sheriff’s Department and other agencies to establish a community court.

Instead of being hauled off to jail or ordered to pay a fine, chronic offenders would be diverted to community court and given the option of undergoing treatment, be it for alcohol addiction, drug addiction and/or mental health issues. Those who refuse, or fail to successfully complete the program, would then face jail time.

The program is in the development stage, though officials hope to start it on a limited basis in September.

One of the key issues that must first be addressed, though, is whether medical detox will be available, since there are no facilities in our area.

In other words, there will be challenges. But doing nothing — or continuing the same ineffective methods — is not a viable option. The courts and law enforcement, which have been hit hard by budget cutbacks, don’t have the resources to continue to deal with hundreds of violations committed by the same small group of chronic offenders .

To be sure, there is no guarantee that community court will succeed. But it’s worth trying, because as Sheriff Ian Parkinson told us, we can’t lock up repeat offenders for relatively minor offenses and, as the saying goes, throw away the key.

Again, we commend all those working to make the community court a reality; we look for ward to seeing whether this new model will make a difference.

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