Two adages often help me understand why certain things happen:
“People will often choose what is easy instead of what is right.”
“The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
These sayings sum up what has taken place in the criminal justice system as imagined by California legislators. Several years ago, Californians made it clear they wanted to see more rehabilitation to help criminals successfully reintegrate back into society, especially those who were doing time due to substance abuse or mental health issues. Political leaders fell all over themselves to pass legislation to adhere to these demands from voters.
Unfortunately, in the mad rush by political leaders to grab a headline for their reelection campaigns at the expense of crime victims, all they did was make a farce of so-called diversion programs. Now, crime victims across the state are paying the price.
To fully understand the comedy that has become the criminal justice system as it pertains to those suffering from substance abuse or mental health issues, let me provide a brief history of its current evolution. For more than 20 years in California, those convicted of many low-level drug offenses were often sentenced to prison. Those convicted of various crimes who also suffered with mental health issues were usually sent to prison because, quite frankly, society didn’t know what else to do with them. Many were dangerous, and they needed to be kept off the streets.
In 2000, things began to change. That year, voters approved the Substance Abuse and Crime Prevention Act of 2000. Known as Proposition 36, it provided an alternative for people convicted of certain drug offenses, such as being under the influence or simple possession. Voters wanted those with substance abuse problems to seek treatment in drug treatment programs. If they failed after several chances to succeed, only then would jail or prison time be imposed. There were some success stories, but Proposition 36 was largely unsuccessful.
In 2011, California political leaders enacted legislation to make it difficult to send those convicted of numerous low-level felonies, including drug possession, to prison. Even drug dealers could no longer be sent to prison. In 2014, voters approved Proposition 47, which reduced most drug offenses to misdemeanors, meaning any custody time could only be served in local jails.
It didn’t take long to reap the whirlwind of all these changes. Local jails became overcrowded because many criminals who were serving their sentences in prison were now serving their sentences in jail. Without the infrastructure to handle this sudden population explosion, courts stopped sentencing many defendants to custody time. Today, drug dealers are being let out of jail after only a few months. Many convicted of simple possession and being under the influence are only sentenced to the hours they spend in custody after arrest if their cases are filed at all.
Thus, drug users are no longer getting treatment and are at the mercy of drug dealers who barely get a slap on the wrist before they are back in business — all made possible by California’s political leaders.
Misguided Mental Health Efforts
Those afflicted with mental illness have suffered a similar fate. Over the last five years, mental health has entered the national spotlight and elicited much understanding and sympathy. The last thing anyone wants is for someone suffering from a mental illness to languish in custody where staff are ill-equipped to give people the care they need. Instead of getting better, those with mental illness only get worse in these scenarios. Once again, career politicians stepped into the void and again made a mockery of victims’ rights — while at the same time ensuring that the mentally ill would not get the help they need.
In 2018, the Legislature passed Senate Bill 215, a mental health diversion program where those suffering from mental illness who committed certain offenses would be given treatment. If they successfully completed that treatment, their crime would be dismissed as if it never happened. There were seven stringent criteria the defendant needed to meet to have the opportunity to participate in this program. If they failed, their case would continue down the traditional criminal justice path.
For one, the defendant had to agree to treatment and accept whatever program mental health experts devised. And the defendant’s risk to public safety had to be small. This created a labor-intensive system for criminal justice employees who had to navigate a defendant with mental illness through his respective program successfully — often a challenging prospect.
Despite the utter lack of resources provided by the Legislature to help this program along, there was some success. Unfortunately, the success was often temporary because once the criminal justice system lost jurisdiction over the subject, he would be turned loose onto the world without anyone supervising his treatment. It was only a matter of time before the subject would re-offend.
Then the Legislature decided to step in and mess up even this limited success. In 2021, they created a program called “misdemeanor judicial diversion.” This meant that any criminal defendant charged with almost any misdemeanor could be placed on unsupervised pseudo-probation where as long as he complied with a sparse set of terms for six months, his case would be dismissed and treated like it never happened. The criminal justice system would never know if the defendant complied with these terms unless he were arrested for a new crime — meaning crime victims would need to be re-victimized before a court would take a defendant seriously.
Misdemeanor judicial diversion has had terrible and predictable consequences for both crime victims and the mentally ill. Qualifying for judicial diversion is significantly easier than qualifying for mental health diversion, and judges are now handing out judicial diversion resolutions like candy. Thus, defense attorneys, for the most part, no longer bother with mental health court because it’s too hard. This means the mentally ill are now less likely to get the help they need, guaranteeing unnecessary future victimization of some as-yet-unknown person.
Through their thoughtless and haphazard foray into the criminal justice system, California’s political leaders have abandoned crime victims and the people they supposedly tried to help. The focus of criminal justice needs to be on preserving victims’ rights and restoring their dignity, not on social work. If legislators really want to help their constituents, they will focus efforts more on proactive crime prevention and make more resources available to defendants once they serve their sentences so they can be reintegrated as productive members of society.
John Barrick has worked as a prosecutor in the Ventura County District Attorney’s Office for more than 17 years, where he has prosecuted some of the most violent crimes committed in the county. He currently serves in the Major Crimes-Homicide Unit. He is also a 2022 candidate for District Attorney.