By Alex Jimenez
SAN FRANCISCO, CA – Many questions have been raised over the effectiveness of diversion programs in the criminal justice system, and last week embattled San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin went on Instagram live to elaborate on diversion programs as an alternative to traditional prosecution.
With a recall election coming this June, Boudin has been criticized for his stance on criminal prosecution, often perceived as soft on crime by critics.
But data released by his office and examined by the San Francisco Chronicle reveal fewer convictions for criminal cases than past San Francisco District Attorneys.
“Many are getting their cases diverted into programs meant to serve as alternatives to jail or other harsher sentences,” said Boudin.
These programs are meant to serve as an alternative to traditional prosecution and jail time for eligible defendants, he noted, adding the benefits of collaborative courts which exist under a broader scope for diversion programs work.
For example, he said, an accused could be placed in behavioral health court where a specific mental health diagnosis is required. Young adult court is limited to transitional age of adulthood, focusing on education and employment, and then there is drug court, focusing on placing defendants in treatment programs.
These programs have an established partnership with the city’s Superior Court and are presided over by a San Francisco judge, said Boudin.
“It creates a structured supervised mechanism for holding people accountable in ways that are more effective than traditional jail, breaking cycles of recidivism.” Boudin said.
Boudin maintains that these programs are not meant for people to escape the criminal justice system and accountability, and that these programs take two years to complete and are constantly supervised by a judge or community leaders—often a longer process to complete than just going to jail.
Boudin argued the programs allow for flexibility and optionality and if a participant fails to complete the program or does not comply, the charges are still pending and the courts hold the full discretion to send the case back for traditional prosecution.
Boudin noted a study done by the California Policy Lab in Berkeley, evaluating San Francisco collaborative courts and recidivism rates for people charged with felonies and entering into a program.
Looking at subjects over a five-year period found that people charged with felonies and successfully completing the program are 20 percent less likely to be rearrested than if they went through a traditional prosecution path.
“Someone who goes through the collaborative courts successfully is much less likely to commit a new crime and be rearrested,” said Boudin.
Neighborhood courts were also discussed in which local volunteers help resolve matters that involve lower level crimes; they require participants who’ve been arrested to engage with a group of trained neighborhood adjudicators or essentially community judges.
According to Boudin, these volunteers require treatment or community service for engagement with the community that’s been harmed by the conduct leading to the arrest.
Boudin once again emphasized that if the participants don’t comply, those cases come back over to criminal court and are prosecuted.
The goal for having neighborhood courts is to free up limited resources the courts have, minimize the negative impact of the crime committed and “empower local communities impacted by crime to have a say in what accountability looks like,” Boudin maintained.
He said an annual report is available on the SF District Attorney’s website detailing statistics and success stories for these diversion programs.
This strategy has not come without backlash, as two former prosecutors, Brooke Jenkins and Don Du Bain, told the San Francisco Chronicle they “take issue with Boudin’s higher diversion rates and lower conventions for crimes like assault that threaten public safety.”
Boudin’s approach to send people into diversion programs and utilization of collaborative courts are not a new phenomenon in San Francisco, however. But in the coming months this topic will likely be focal point of discussion for the upcoming SF District Attorney recall (of Boudin) election in June.