CATCH AND RELEASE: No, everything does not happen for a reason. And despite frequent assertions to the contrary, the Lord does give you more than you can handle. But on the flip side, I’ve never been that comfortable with the whole random, pointless, empty thing. Given this meager range of options, I’ve been forced to take refuge in happy coincidences. Lucky for me, last Thursday offered a doozy. That’s when the Hastings Alumni Association — a new crew of civil uplifters — hosted an evening forum on Proposition 47 at the Louise Lowry Davis Center. In case you forgot, Prop. 47 was passed overwhelming by voters statewide last November to downgrade a host of rinky-dink crimes of self-destruction and chemical self-immolation from felonies to misdemeanors. Mostly, we’re talking drug possession and the shoplifting often committed by those drug-possessed. Until Prop. 47, such shoplifters were frequently charged with acts of commercial burglary — a felony — and shipped off accordingly to some state prison. During the campaign, supporters argued Prop. 47 would remove low-level nonviolent offenders now occupying expensive and nonexistent real estate in the state prisons and placing them somewhere more appropriate. On the other hand, law-enforcement officials warned the sky would fall if Prop. 47 were passed. After only six months, it’s still too soon to say that the Fat Lady has definitively sung. But early indications strongly indicate that the sky has yet to hit the ground.
Earlier last Thursday, President Barack Obama would beat the Hastings Alums to the punch. Obama seized the opportunity to become the first president to visit a federal prison. While at Oklahoma’s El Reno facility, The Prez wondered how the United States’ behind-bars population could have jumped from 500,000 in 1980 to 2.2 million today. The question isn’t new; what’s new is how right wingers are now asking it even more urgently than the civil libertarian left. Eighty billion dollars — that’s our annual incarceration tab — ain’t cheap.
The Hastings Boys fielded an impressive panel of three judges, Sheriff Bill Brown, the public defender, a high-ranking prosecutor, and the county probation chief. The Big News is that about 1,500 Prop. 47 petitions have been filed, and most granted. Today, the District Attorney is filing 39 percent fewer felony charges and the backlog of felony cases has dropped by 25 percent. Although Prosecutor Kelly Scott suggested that Los Angeles’ recent crime-rate increase — 12.7 — might be tied to Prop. 47 and all the low-level offenders it cut loose, there’s little evidence the barbarians are at the gate in Santa Barbara because of this. According to stats cited by Sheriff Brown, crime has dropped 2 percent since Prop. 47 went into effect. Violent crime has plunged 29 percent. Brown worries that critics of his proposed new North County jail will cite such info to argue the new jail is not necessary. Although average daily population at the jail plunged immediately after Prop. 47, Brown said it’s returned to pre-Prop. 47 levels. Fully 70 percent of county jail inmates, he pointed out, have yet to go to trial. Only 30 percent are serving sentences. That number never ceases to astonish. How much of a new jail would be needed if that 70 percent number could be whittled down? It turns out a typical felony defendant shows up in front of South Coast judges 25-30 times before going to trial or reaching settlement. That’s a crazy number. No wonder local judges can only handle one trial a month. By law, anyone accused of a felony is entitled to a jury trial within days of pleading not guilty. In practice, roughly half of Santa Barbara’s felony cases take 90 days or more to get there. Of those, half take more than 180. I’m no efficiency expert, but if the nation’s airlines were run the same way, we’d all be walking.
To the extent there was much debate last Thursday, it was all about carrots and sticks. Sheriff Brown and Prosecutor Scott argued without the threat of a felony sentence, law enforcement could not coerce defendants with addiction issues facing misdemeanor charges to sign up for the intensive 18-month treatment programs required by Drug Court and other diversion programs. They have a point, but one with a big asterisk. Drug Court numbers dropped from 78 before Prop. 47 to just 57 this June. But it’s worth noting that Drug Court enrollments were dropping even before Prop. 47, though not as fast. That’s because County Probation and the DA’s office have differing opinions about what kind of offenders should be given the “second chance” of drug court. Probation insists the program works best for high-risk repeat offenders but is wasted on low-risk newbies. They claim the research backs this up. But for many prosecutors, this math makes no sense, and they’re not inclined to reach out to defendants who’ve squandered such efforts in the past. Public Defender Rai Montes de Oca wondered to what extent the stick has ever worked, and argued that the carrot needs to be reinvented. Drug Court may have been cutting-edge 20 years ago, he said, but not now. He cited a new program originating in Hawai‘i called Project HOPE. Unlike Drug Court, Project Hope does not require participation in a treatment program — though it’s encouraged. Participants are, however, required to meet certain benchmark expectations — like not testing positive. Those who fall short get sent to jail for two to three days and then released to try again. The carrot Project HOPE offers is the dismissal of charges for those who eventually make it. A recent study of four Project HOPE programs suggests the approach is actually working; participants were 55 percent less likely to be arrested for new crimes and 72 percent less likely to use drugs again. In the meantime, it’s like they say: The Lord wouldn’t give you more carrot cake than you could eat.
Editor’s Note: This story was changed on July 23 to correct the number of times felony defendants appear in court. It’s 25-30 times, not 35-40, which are still very big numbers.