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County supervisors approve $7.2 million to shift focus from incarceration to treatment and other services

The San Diego County Board of Supervisors unanimously agreed Tuesday to invest $7.2 million in programs that would direct people who commit low-level crimes to services rather than jail.

The initiative, called Safety Through Services, is the product of an 18-month study that looked at who ends up in San Diego County jails, why, and the best approaches to keeping them from returning.

County Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer, who proposed security through services in October 2021, told the meeting that there was a need to move from incarceration to addressing issues such as homelessness, drug addiction and mental illness.

“Our current system is expensive, it fails, it costs taxpayers billions and it doesn’t work,” she said, adding that it costs more than twice as much to jail someone with mental illness. than placing her in housing and in treatment.

The study, conducted by the Criminal Justice Research Arm of the San Diego Association of Governments, or SANDAG, had four key objectives:

  • Analyze how COVID-19 prevention measures—such as no bail for certain offenses—have reduced San Diego’s prison population.
  • Determine whether the reductions have had an impact on public safety.
  • Explore what needs to be done to expand access to prison alternatives for people deemed not to pose a risk to public safety.
  • Consider whether cost savings can be made by channeling people into services rather than prison.

The study looked at approximately 12,000 people who were arrested or cited by law enforcement for certain minor offenses but were not incarcerated between April 1, 2020 and March 31, 2021.

The researchers found that in the year following this period, while just over half of the people in the study had been subsequently arrested, this arrest was rarely for a crime that was not related to alcoholism or drug addiction, homelessness or financial instability.

Researchers found that one in four of those arrests were related to alcohol or drug use, while 24% were low level and quality of life crimes, such as transit fare violations. , unlawful harboring, shoplifting or failure to appear in court.

The study also found that those at risk of incarceration often struggle to access services, ranging from housing support to treatment for substance abuse and mental illness.

“Potential customers need to know what services are available and there needs to be enough room to serve them,” the study says. “Priorization of additional education and outreach in innovative ways, including the use of trusted messengers, is encouraged.”

More importantly, service providers must have the capacity to respond to demands. Long waiting lists, especially for housing and job training assistance, posed significant barriers, the study found.

To meet this challenge, according to the researchers, “it is important that service providers are funded at the level necessary to meet the demand for services.”

The study was accompanied by a phased work plan that outlined 20 actions the county plans to take over the next year at a cost of $7.2 million. Every action falls somewhere on the Sequential Interception Model, a numerical system that helps identify the best point in the criminal justice system at which to “intercept” and divert a person to services.

One of the plan’s key actions is to create a diversion, reintegration and resource center that would serve as a “one-stop shop” where people could access services like legal assistance, job training and case management. .

If possible, the resource center would be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week and would be in a location where law enforcement could take those arrested on minor charges.

Another proposed action is to create a program called Connection Points. Similar to the success of Orange County’s Kinship project, it would connect people coming out of prison with peer mentors who also have a history of incarceration. The peer mentor would help meet the immediate and longer term needs of their mentee with the aim of preventing the person from returning to prison.

In comments at the oversight board meeting and in a subsequent press conference, members of a volunteer community board that advised SANDAG urged policymakers to commit to integrating alternatives to the incarceration into the county’s long-term public safety planning and to consider expanding its initial scope.

“While I support board approval of this proposal, I hope it will be cemented in parts of the budget for years to come,” said advisory board member Wehtahnah Tucker, who has years of experience. experience working with incarcerated people. “A successful alternatives to incarceration initiative will require more than a one-time increase in services.”

Bill Payne, president and CEO of Second Chance, a non-profit organization that provides rehabilitation services after incarceration, called Safety Through Services “inherently responsive”.

“I think we need some leadership to insist on an interception model that includes an intervention stage,” he said. He also encouraged supervisors not to limit the program’s focus to minor crimes.

“Allowing the concept of eligibility for alternatives to incarceration to be based on a specific set of criminal charges will result in missed opportunities for rehabilitation and will certainly miss out on some public safety benefits,” Payne said.

Darwin Fishman of the Racial Justice Coalition of San Diego said at the press conference that the report lacked any discussion of alternatives to contact with law enforcement. Some calls to the police, such as those regarding homelessness, may be redirected to social workers.

Security by services “is an important first step,” Fishman said, “but it’s only one step.”

California Daily Newspapers

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