DEMANDS INNOVATION AND
All California counties face the challenge of fighting crime
and addressing its impacts. Criminal activity has a
significant effect on how we carry out our responsibility to
the citizens we serve in government. Fighting crime has no
Oftentimes law enforcement and the traditional criminal justice system are
simply not enough to stop repeat offenders.
A real and effective approach to fighting crime involves a multifaceted and
comprehensive effort across disciplines that targets the root cause of
Far too often it is an individual’s substance abuse problems that are the cause of both violent and nonviolent crime. In San Diego County we have sought out and implemented innovative programs that look to fight crime by addressing this root cause of criminal activity; a landmark example being the success we’ve achieved with the Drug Court program. Drug Court works to reduce recidivism by including substance abuse treatment as a part of the offender’s sentence and has proven to be equally effective for adult criminals and juvenile delinquents. The program is designed to reduce crime by ordering judicially monitored substance abuse treatment under the belief that people commit crimes because of their drug problems, not in addition to them.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office found the Drug Court program to be an effective means of cutting down on repeat crimes since Drug Court participants were less likely to be rearrested or convicted for longer periods of time than offenders who did not complete the program. Recidivism rates were significantly lower for Drug Court participants for felonies and all drug crimes.
In March of 2005 the California Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs released a report that shows Drug Court to be an effective means of keeping people clean, sober and law abiding. The report estimates that in a three and a half year period the felons who successfully completed the Drug Court program avoided more than 1 million prison days and saved the State over $42 million in prison costs. Successfully completing Drug Court also leads to successes in other areas of life including making regular child support payments, holding down a job, getting off the street, completing parenting classes, engaging in community service and most importantly, remaining drug free. The program has also led to a major reform by implementing the Drug Court model with Dependency Court; ordering substance abuse treatment for parents whose children have been removed for abuse or neglect. This model has resulted in an increase in the County’s ability to reunite healthy families and spare children from long periods of foster care. A collaborative effort that unites law enforcement, District Attorneys, Public Defenders, Probation officers, Judges and treatment providers, Drug Court for adults and juvenile delinquents, and Dependency Court are working in San Diego County because of the many varied interests committed to their success.
Another innovative program that addresses criminal activity began in San Diego County through a need identified at a veteran’s event designed to assist the homeless. The event brought to light that a significant number of the homeless face outstanding misdemeanor criminal cases and warrants that they are unable to address. Informal court services at subsequent veteran’s events led to the implementation of Homeless Court in San Diego County, special court sessions that are convened in a local shelter or other community site designed for homeless citizens to resolve these warrants, typically incurred for “quality-of-life” infractions such as the unauthorized removal of a shopping cart, disorderly conduct, public drunkenness, and sleeping on a sidewalk or on the beach. Resolving outstanding warrants meets a fundamental need of homeless people and also eases significant court case processing backlogs as well as reduces vagrancy. Homeless people tend to be fearful of attending court, yet their outstanding warrants limit their reintegration into society, deterring them from using social services and impeding their access to employment.
Homeless Court has been an effective means of resolving a backlog of cases while significantly benefiting the homeless persons involved. The San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) found that 96% of the cases in Homeless Court were resolved through creative alternative sentencing – swapping treatment for traditional sentences. In place of fines, which most of the homeless were unable to pay, community service and custody, the participants in Homeless Court were “sentenced” to job training, mental health treatment and substance abuse treatment. SANDAG also reported that fewer Homeless Court participants were arrested or cited, or had any contact with law enforcement 90 days after their hearing.
Both Drug Court and Homeless Court rely upon cross-governmental collaboration, not just within the public safety community, but also with the health and social services network. We in County government are often tasked with addressing issues that do not have a simple solution. The fact that County regional services encompass a great many functions of government is both a challenge and an opportunity to team together health and social services, law enforcement, prosecution and probation to address the root cause of criminal activity in a comprehensive way. Only by working together, with creativity and innovation, can we address the causes of criminal behavior, further enhancing our goal of ensuring public safety.
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