On Tuesday, Contra Costa County District Attorney Diana Becton provided and update while presenting a number of changes taking place in the District Attorney’s Office to the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors.
According to the 2019 data, Becton highlighted there are 1.5 million residents with 25 law enforcement agencies within 19 cities. There were 3,700 felony cases filed and over 6,500 misdemeanor cases filed.
The following is an overview of her presentation to the Board of Supervisors:
Adult Diversion Program
Becton explained that the adult diversion program was aimed at diverting cases away from the criminal justice system.
“Recently we announced a policy that relates to low level small possession of very small amounts of drugs that filing considerations have changed,” stated Becton. “People who are cited for the first time solely for possession of small amounts of drugs instead of bringing those cases into the criminal justice system, we are referring them to our health department for treatment. It is our hope that we will be reducing the strain on our court system as well as our law enforcement in providing treatment options so that we can stop the cycle of people who might come back.”
Becton said assuming it’s a stand-alone small possession arrest for up to three times, they were deferred to health care.
Supervisor Candace Anderson asked that since people were being put into diversion programs, is there any “teeth” into entering the programs as a condition of not being prosecuted or just handing out information.
Becton replied they could not force people into treatment but noted even if they went to trial, there would be no teeth at the end of the day as a person would not be put in a program, it would be a slap on the wrist and back to normal activity—that is what they are trying to address the cycle.
“There is no requirement that people must attend, but we are hoping, especially in our partnership with the health department, that we will at least try and track those cases to see if we do have success in getting people into treatment and hopefully stopping that cycle,” explained Becton.
This also falls under the Adult Diversion Program, Becton explained that looting is written on the books very loosely according to State Law, so her office wanted to distinguish better what would be considered looting versus theft cases.
Becton explained looting is when people would take advantage of the pandemic in order to commit crime, they simply developed criteria.
“There is no indication in our office that we will not file looting cases. We have filed them and we will continue to do so if we find people are taking advantage of the emergency in order to commit crime in our county,” stated Becton. “Otherwise, the cases would be charged under our regular statues.”
Becton also addressed the rumor that there is no consequences for certain types of cases. She told the Board of Supervisors that they have diversion programs even though they may not charge for a low level crime, they have corrective solutions.
Supervisor Andersen asked about petty theft under $300 for first time offense, the District Attorney’s Office is not going to prosecute.
Becton stated that is correct, but also to consider the diversion program for these small cases.
“When we are talking about $300, we have to put that into perspective that its very often the person who is going into the grocery store and stealing a small amount of food or a bottle of liquor or something of that kind. Very often in these cases they are repeat offenders,” stated Becton who said they work with law enforcement on known problems to package/bundle the cases together and prosecute them that away. “Otherwise, those cases can be diverted and placed in our corrective solutions program.”
Anderson asked if Becton could provide an overview of someone who stole $270 from a store and what would happen to them.
Becton explained in this example, they would determine if restoration is owed and/if merchandise was recovered and returned. They would then send the person a letter to enter them into a diversion program and the person would take a class on how they are harming the community. If they don’t sign up, they could prosecute.
Andersen stated it was important to explain that because her office was getting many inquiries on people thinking that if people steal under $300 that nothing will happen.
COVID-19 Response (Enforcement)
Supervisor Karen Mitchoff expressed concerns from local business who are complying with state orders, but competitors are not while admitting they have gone with an education model versus enforcement but with the new order, she requested information on how many cases prosecuted as they are looking to get the “bad actors”.
Becton stated a task force has been established and to date she is aware of 1 case that has been filed but has noticed an uptick in complaints and admits they will need to begin addressing compliance issues.
“It’s something we’ll have to address, likely in a much more rigorous manner,” said Becton.
Mitchoff urged law enforcement partners to take more of a “stick approach rather than the carrot approach”.
Supervisor Diane Burgis highlighted how low income and a disproportionately amount of people of color are impacted by Covid and believed the enforcement of this will become very important.
“I’ve also experienced in my District where people are trying to comply and do the right thing and turn around and see all of these other businesses are not, of course, you can only do what is brought to you so the message to law enforcement and cities that we all need to be working on using the educational portion of it but if people are not complying we need to bring it to the next level so the DA’s office can act on it,” stated Burgis.
Supervisor John Gioia asked what the pattern has been with more filings or less filings.
Becton said there has not been less filings because the work is still going on. She stated how early on in COVID-19, the sheriffs office told all law enforcement they would not accept low-level criminals into the jails—domestic violence, violating restraining orders—which they prioritized cases of who would end up in jail. Becton said it doesn’t mean they were not working on the cases, they just were not looking at custody status.
“I don’t think we have any significant drop in the filing of the more serious cases, the only places we are trying to reduce our filings is with the lower level misdemeanor cases,” stated Becton noting there is a drop in crime in general over the past few years.
Supervisor Burgis asked about misdemeanors and if Becton could provide an update.
Becton replied stating they have been trying to reduce that count in the county. Data is being collected after a judge said there was a need to reduce the number of misdemeanor cases coming into the system because they were clogging up the system and overloading the public defender’s office—with a clogged system, the county was then paying for private attorney’s since they did not have the staffing.
“There is a cost impact to the county and we also want to make sure that we were addressing the needs that we heard of the community which is stopping the chronic patterns of arrests and connecting individuals with services which is what we were trying to do with the new drug policy,” said Becton.
Becton said she will be presenting data in the future. (Note – press release issued back in September about the filings)
Hate crimes Committee
Becton says they have a new committee within the District Attorney’s Office which will make a recommendation on filings.
Becton reported that the neighborhood community courts was off to a “slow start”. They have not been able to get off the ground yet due to the hiring freeze. Still hopes to launch the program.