By David M. Greenwald
Woodland, CA – For months, Yolo County DA Jeff Reisig pushed for AB 1542 with Assemblymember Kevin McCarty which would have given people committing felony offenses deemed to be related to substance abuse a choice of treatment in a secure facility or incarceration.
On Tuesday, following a presentation before the board of supervisors, he seemingly balked at alternative punishments in a different program.
Yolo County DA Jeff Reisig along with HHSA Karen Larsen gave presentations before the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday on what he termed was a collaboration between the DA’s office and Health and Human Services called “Harm Reduction Diversion.”
What they are calling “Harm Reduction Diversion,” Reisig explained “is our attempt at diverting individuals arrested for low-level drug possession offenses – personal use quantity and public intoxication offenses out of the criminal justice system.”
Originally this was to be a six month pilot, but it is continuing until the end of the year.
“We want to treat low level drug and public intoxication crimes, conceptually, similar to other public health issues,” he said. “I do believe… this is more of a public health issue than a criminal issue… and so we’re testing that hypothesis. We are intending to divert thousands of low-level recreational and drug and alcohol cases out of the system into the healthcare system.”
They basically are given two cases in the course of a 12 month period to voluntarily engage in treatment with HHSC.
“Now on a third offense, within a 12 month period, we will file a criminal case,” he said.
This program in particular is for substance abuse offenses that are unlikely to be incarcerated.
The problem he complained is without the stick, they are not getting enough participation.
“We learned quite a bit,” Karen Larsen said. “ I think what we learned first and foremost is that sending a letter to clients who have been charged with these offenses probably isn’t enough to get them into services, as you noticed from the percentages.”
One problem, “There continues to be a really high stigma around substance use – more so even than with mental health conditions. That stigma is exacerbated when the criminal justice system is involved.”
She believes, “People have a sense of fear and shame.” And therefore, she believes, “just having an open door is not enough that we actually have to find the right people to hold their hands and help them navigate our systems.”
Notice her approach compared to the DA who wants to basically hit people with a stick and threaten them to get them into a locked facility.
Maybe the answer is to further decouple this from the criminal legal system? In other words, even though DA Reisig says he wants to treat this as a health problem – he is holding the sword over their head and yelling three strikes you’re out.
The question came up couldn’t they start looking at cases where the drug offense was accompanied by another charge?
Karen Larsen explained, “What we know about our folks who struggle with substance use is they’re often committing other crimes that do end up getting them into incarceration, petty theft and those kinds of crimes that are drug motivated, but not necessarily possession charges.”
Jim Provenza then asked, “Had you looked at expanding who can be placed in the program?” He continued, “For example, if it’s a petty theft case where somebody has not joined the program, with petty, they actually would face some criminal consequences, so then maybe have more incentive to participate.”
But in response, Reisig balked stating, “I understand it. I’m not there.”
He said, “You have a victim behind a petty theft. We chose this population because they’re addicts, they’re using, but there isn’t a per se victim, someone that has been harmed.”
He continued, “From a policy standpoint, I think this is the correct population to try this program with. If we have success, maybe we can push it out into some of those other offenders. But you know, the community feedback that I’ve had on this is mixed. I think there are a lot of people that are concerned about the idea, people who are seriously addicted basically not having any accountability.”
In his presentation, Reisig used the term, “seriously addicted” at least three times. It’s not clear the difference between addiction and “serious” addiction.
But more interesting is the fact that Jeff Reisig pushed for AB 1542 for Yolo County that would create a secure treatment facility for people who are committing that exact type of crime.
Had the Governor not vetoed the measure last week, Yolo County would have been allowed “to develop a secured treatment facility for individuals who are involved in the criminal justice system and who live with substance use disorders. Those eligible for the treatment program would include people who have committed drug motivated felonies that, absent this program, would result in them being sentenced to jail or prison. Those who commit misdemeanors, simple drug possession, sex offenses, and strike offenses would not be eligible.”
Clearly, the two programs do not cover the same population – but the DA is operating almost in a silo here rather than looking at the system holistically and attempting to find remedies for incarceration.
DA Reisig in one case is pushing for a secure treatment facility because he recognizes or so he says that prison is not the best place to treat addiction, but on the other hand, he is not willing to extend this particular pilot program to misdemeanor petty theft because that involves a victim.
By the way, when he states, the community is mixed on this – I’m not sure where he is getting that from.
On Tuesday, he continued to attack Prop 47 – “this is the reality since 2014, which is when Proposition 47 went into effect here in our courts, we saw a drop in drug court participation by 86%. What that means is the incentive for people who were arrested on drug possession offenses to participate in a drug supervised treatment program has simply eroded.”
But the vast majority of voters in Yolo County supported Prop 47 and opposed Prop 20 last year which would have overturned it.
DA Reisig thus finds himself in a strange in between point – he seems to recognize that the current system doesn’t work, but he is not a true believer in reform and he keeps trying to find halfway measures and then when they don’t work, he yells, see I told you so.
The difference in the approach between Reisig and someone like Karen Larsen may be more telling than the difference between Reisig a true reformer.