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City Attorney’s Drug Diversion Program Shows Some Success In First Year

San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott outside of the Hall of Justice, Sept. 25...

Photo by Matt Hoffman

Above: San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott outside of the Hall of Justice, Sept. 25, 2019.

Around a third of all low-level drug offenders chose drug treatment over jail during the first year of a diversion program started by San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott and Police Chief David Nisleit, findings from Elliott's office revealed Wednesday.

The Prosecution and Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion Services program partners city prosecutors and the San Diego Police Department with San Diego County social support agencies to help people struggling with addiction.

"Many of its participants were in a cycle of arrest and jail that often leads to homelessness," the report stated.

Through this pre-booking diversion approach, individuals can avoid arrest, prosecution, and jail time by choosing to go to a sobering center that offers support services.

From May 2019 to May 2020, 468 low-level drug offenders were referred to a sobering center for evaluation instead of being arrested and booked into jail. Of those, 401, or 86%, were referred to substance abuse treatment and 136, or 34%, accepted treatment.

"Seeking treatment for drug dependency instead of going to jail may sound like an easy decision, but to those who struggle with addiction, it's a difficult and courageous first step," Elliott said. "Although the program is relatively new, early results are encouraging, and we expect participation to grow over time."

The diversion process begins when law enforcement officers contact individuals on suspicion of being under the influence of a controlled substance. Suspects can choose to seek treatment rather than be booked into jail and potentially prosecuted for the offense.

Anyone choosing treatment is sent to the Sobering Services Center run by McAlister Institute, where trained staff assess them and link them to local programs ranging from inpatient and outpatient services to detox and other appropriate services.

PLEADS is part of the City Attorney's Office's larger effort to divert low-level offenders away from the criminal justice system and "provide opportunities for individuals to get a fresh start," a statement from Elliot's office said. "This saves costs by reducing time spent by the court, law enforcement, attorneys, and first responders, and preserves health care resources by cutting down on expensive, unnecessary emergency room visits."

In 2014, the city attorney launched the Community Justice Initiative, in which criminal convictions are dismissed if an offender performs community service. Participants also have access to educational, job training, and treatment programs.

The office also administers the San Diego Misdemeanants At-Risk Track Program, which aims to prevent low-level misdemeanor drug offenders from cycling through the criminal justice system without access to services.

S.M.A.R.T. connects chronic misdemeanor drug offenders — particularly those who are otherwise resistant to intervention — to a case manager and offers personalized treatment and tailored housing placements as an alternative to jail time.

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