Crime

First-time law-breakers could get a break under new program

San Luis Obispo County Jail
San Luis Obispo County Jail jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Facing an increase in low-level criminal cases and a county jail consistently at capacity due to recent changes in state law, San Luis Obispo County will join a growing list of communities offering one- or two-day classes to quash some first-time misdemeanor offenses.

On Tuesday, the county Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a request by the county District Attorney’s Office to contract services to Pacific Educational Services of Auburn to administer the classes, which operate much like traffic school.

If a participant successfully completes the one- or two-day class, a criminal charge is never filed. Participation is not a legal admission of guilt. And even though the court’s case-management system will keep a record of program participants, the incident will not show up on their background checks or criminal history.

The local program will begin April 1.

Background

Both the local jail and courthouse have been overburdened since state prison realignment — the transfer of thousands of inmates from state prisons to county jails — took effect in 2011, and Proposition 47, which voters passed in November, downgraded certain felony charges to misdemeanors.

District Attorney Dan Dow told supervisors Tuesday that San Luis Obispo Superior Court has seen an average of about 12,000 misdemeanor cases every year for the last five years. Dow estimates the new program will reduce the local caseload by about 1,000 cases a year.

“Many of these are typically people with little to no criminal history,” Dow said.

However, the board’s approval included the addition of one full-time legal clerk in the District Attorney’s Office to review roughly 5,000 first-offense cases a year to determine eligibility, process legal filings and administer the program.

The new position’s salary and benefits will cost the county $11,683 through the fiscal year ending June 30 and $70,100 annually.

That will be paid for by an expected administrative fee paid by participants.

Following an arrest, the District Attorney’s Office will contact eligible individuals, who will then have 30 days to enroll in the program.

Participants will be charged a $100 administrative fee to the county, as well as $300 to the company for a six-hour class and $500 for a 12-hour class. The county estimates Pacific Educational Services will make about $400,000 a year based on the expected caseload.

After a participant has completed the class, Pacific Educational Services will notify the District Attorney’s Office, which will abandon the complaint against that individual.

Those eligible for the program include first-time offenders for misdemeanors such as petty theft, driving without or on a suspended license, public intoxication, trespassing, assaults with no or only minor injuries, and some drug cases, excluding heroin cases, and only for those in possession of less than three grams, Assistant District Attorney Lee Cunningham said.

“If you have more than that, you probably have a drug problem this program will not address,” Cunningham told the Board of Supervisors. “And if you’re at the heroin level, you’re also probably going down that road where this program won’t help.”

The program will not be allowed for first offenses for driving under the influence of intoxicants and offenses involving weapons, sex or hate crimes, domestic violence or any vehicle code negligence cases.

There will be six classes offered: courses for theft and property cases; misdemeanor vehicle code violations; drug and alcohol offenses; anger management; life skills; and victim impact.

How the program worked in Orange County

A 2011 recidivism study from Orange County, which also provides the courses through Pacific Educational Services, found the county had a 22 percent recidivism rate for first-time misdemeanor offenders before the program and a 6 percent rate now, according to Cunningham. Orange County’s misdemeanor caseload also dropped about 10 percent.

“We’re thinking of the Cal Poly students that come here and mess up,” Cunningham said.

Pacific Educational Services president Walter Stockman told The Tribune on Tuesday that the company provides similar programs in 14 other California counties, including Fresno, Sacramento and Santa Barbara. It originally began offering the Misdemeanor Diversion Program in Placer County — where the company formed — in 1992.

Stockman said that in his experience, about 25 percent of those eligible for the program will not enroll for a variety of reasons and take the conviction. Of the remaining 75 percent, about 90 percent will complete the programs, he said.

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