The Recorder

Commentary By Kwixuan H. Maloof

February 26, 2010

Jason Brown was less than 24 hours from wearing his cap and gown. Instead, the Mission High School student found himself in handcuffs after making the mistake of buying an Ecstasy pill.

Although he had never before been in trouble, Jason (a pseudonym) spent his graduation day in a jail cell.

In an instant, the door to his future began to close. A criminal conviction would affect his ability to go to college, qualify for financial aid and land a job. The minor drug charge carried a sentence of up to a year in jail.

Fortunately, a judge admitted Jason to the Pretrial Diversion program in San Francisco. The program, which is only available in a handful of California counties, allows first-time misdemeanor arrestees to avoid a criminal conviction by completing treatment programs and performing community service.

Jason completed the program, enrolled in college and now works as a camp counselor for young burn victims. His case was dismissed and he has no record of a conviction. Like most diversion participants, Jason has stayed out of trouble.

It’s time to give more people the same chance.

Currently, San Francisco’s court system handles 12,000 misdemeanor offenses annually. Because of the strict eligibility criteria, only 1,500 cases qualify for the Pretrial Diversion program.

Among the three dozen misdemeanors that do not make the cut are resisting arrest, computer crimes, graffiti with a prior offense and certain Fish and Game Code violations such as hunting abalone out of season. Drug possession offenses, like Jason’s, are not usually allowed in the program.

There has never been a better time to expand this program. Making it happen requires that the district attorney’s office, public defender’s office, adult probation and the trial courts agree to change the eligible crimes to include other misdemeanor offenses.

Broadening the program also makes fiscal sense.

San Francisco taxpayers shell out $120 each day to house an inmate at the county jail. Add court, attorney and prosecutors’ costs and a simple case like Jason’s can easily cost taxpayers thousands of dollars. The cost for Pretrial Diversion is only $245 per client, creating a potential windfall in savings by expanding the list of eligible offenses.

In terms of efficiency, Pretrial Diversion is the bullet train to traditional justice’s lumbering freight. It makes citizens safer by addressing the root causes of crime while providing individuals accused of minor crimes an opportunity to handle their cases in an efficient and effective manner. It also saves taxpayers millions of dollars. Most significant, it helps provide restitution to victims of crime. In 2009, Pretrial Diversion participants paid approximately $240,000 in restitution to crime victims.

More than 215,000 community service hours are completed each year by persons who participate in Pretrial Diversion and through Project 20, a program for people who cannot afford to pay their vehicle fines.

Pretrial Diversion also provides case management supervision to nonviolent participants, who receive daily case management. This has boosted court appearances by participants to an average attendance rate of 94 percent. Case managers help their clients navigate access to services like drug and alcohol counseling, anger management and housing placement.

In these tough economic times, we must focus on solutions that work. Pretrial diversion has been proven effective at saving court time and taxpayer money. We must expand this remarkable program to include other misdemeanor offenses — we simply cannot afford to do otherwise.

Kwixuan H. Maloof is the managing attorney in charge of the San Francisco public defender’s misdemeanor unit.