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Orange County DA Starts Protecting People with Addiction

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There is often debate about how people with addiction should be treated in the criminal justice system in the United States. Increasingly, there is a focus on how to help people with addiction, rather than inherently treating them as criminals when they’re facing bad situations or bad circumstances. 

The Orange County District Attorney’s Office recently announced the launch of the county’s first pre-filing diversion pilot program. The program includes law enforcement and health care partners, focusing on connecting low-level drug offenders with the services they need to deal with substance abuse issues and mental health.

According to the Orange County DA, the program creators hope to help people avoid limitations to future work and education opportunities because of drug offenses while getting them help.

Information from the Orange County DA Office

Orange County’s District Attorney Todd Spitzer released a press release on the start of a comprehensive pilot program to reduce recidivism. The program will connect people with the services that could help them with their mental health and substance abuse issues before criminal charges are filed.

  • The district court program is Focused Intervention Route to Services and Treatment or the FIRST Point Diversion Program.
  • The program results from a partnership between the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, the Police Departments of Seal Beach and Irvin, and the Health Care Agency and Social Services Agency of Orange County. 
  • The FIRST Program is the first of its kind in that it’s a pre-filing diversion program.
  • The program incentivizes participants to accept services to treat underlying issues to avoid criminal charges.
  • District Attorney Spitzer said the hope is that as soon as a new offender makes contact with police, they can be connected with services. They may be able to stay out of the criminal justice system altogether. Even without a conviction, having charges filed can serve as a barrier to future opportunities.
  • FIRST Point will divert cases through a service approach instead of criminal case filings, hopefully reducing the number of repeat offenders and people dealing with the impediment of a criminal record.

How Will the Orange County DA Program Work?

The pilot program targets people who have committed victimless misdemeanor crimes like drug possession and public intoxication with possible mental health or behavioral issues. The program will also work with people who commit crimes where there is a cooperating victim, like assault and vandalism.

  • Law enforcement officials from one of the agencies participating will send a crime report to the designated prosecutor at the Orange County DA office. 
  • That prosecutor reviews the information they receive to determine if a crime can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. If the elements of the crime don’t meet the standard, then the person won’t be eligible for the program.
  • If a crime can be proven, the prosecutor refers the case to an Orange County Health Care Agency counselor. The intake counselor assesses the individual and creates a treatment plan with specific services for their needs. These services can include mental illness treatment and substance abuse counseling.
  • An Orange County Health Care Agency counselor monitors the participants’ progress. If the participant completes their treatment plan successfully, no criminal charges are filed.
  • If the plan isn’t completed within ten months, prosecutors retain the ability to file criminal charges before the end of the one-year statute of limitations expires.
  • A participant in the program will also have the option to receive counseling with the County Social Services Agency to determine whether they could be eligible for benefits. These benefits might include Medi-Cal and food stamps. The benefits, if eligible, continue regardless of whether or not a participant completes the program successfully.

The program administration is managed out of the Orange County District Attorney’s Office’s Mental Health and Recidivism Reduction Unit.

Seal Beach Chief Gonshak spoke about the program, saying there’s been a problem with the criminal justice system not adequately addressing the root causes of crime for too long. Chief Gonshak said the hope is the FIRST Point Program will serve as a way to identify and then remedy some of those underlying causes of certain crimes.

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Do Diversion Programs Work?

Many states have some diversion programs available to first-time and low-level offenders. One of the unique elements of the Orange County DA office program is that it can help someone avoid charges altogether.

In general, diversion programs acknowledge that low-level and first-time offenses shouldn’t automatically trigger the same processes for criminal cases.

Someone who commits a minor crime is unlikely to be best served by going through the typical court process.

Counseling instead of punishment can be more effective.

Studies also find that diversionary programs are less expensive than a case going through the typical steps in the court process.

The core concept of diversion programs is that a defendant is diverted to counseling and, in some cases, substance abuse treatment early on. The defendant doesn’t have to always enter a guilty or no-contest plea for diversion to be an option. It depends on the program.

Some systems require a defendant to admit guilt formally, but punishment is suspended until they complete diversion. In these cases, the plea isn’t entered formally into the court system, so it can be erased if a defendant completes their diversion program.

Diversion programs last anywhere from six months to a year or longer.

The focus is on behavior modification, treatment, and counseling instead of punitive steps.

Participants in diversion programs might go to counseling, classes, or vocational training. They could perform community service work, participate in individual or group therapy, and, as is the case in the Orange County program, receive drug or alcohol counseling or treatment.

If a person completes their diversion program, depending on the specifics of the system, the case returns to court and is dismissed.

If a case of dismissed, the record of the arrest still exists. A defendant can seek to have the case sealed or expunged, but this can be costly and time-consuming. That’s why the Orange County DA program is so unique—since no charges are filed, it eliminates someone having a detrimental record if they complete their treatment plan.

It’s also inspiring to see steps taken in different formats and systems to treat the underlying contributors to crime, which are often substance abuse and mental health concerns.

We encourage you to reach out if you’d like to learn more about programs that could help you or someone you love.

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