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Contra Costa D.A. will no longer charge low-level drug possession cases

Contra Costa District Attorney Diana Becton said Thursday she will no longer charge people arrested for possessing small amounts of drugs, a policy intended to unclog the courts and shift more people out of the criminal justice system.

Becton, elected in 2018 amid a new progressive wave of Bay Area prosecutors, started test-running the effort last year in concert with Public Defender Robin Lipetzky and various city police chiefs. Instead of facing jail time, first-time drug offenders received addiction treatment and mental health services.

A former Superior Court judge, Becton said she “saw firsthand how individuals were cycling through our system,” adding that “we cannot prosecute out of this growing trend.”

Of the 3,977 low-level drug possession cases police brought in 2018, the district attorney’s office filed charges in 45% of them. Those numbers dropped substantially the following year, as Becton tried out the new policy: Of the 3,187 cases logged by police, 31%resulted in charges.

Scott Alonso, a spokesman for the district attorney, said COVID-19 underscored the need to clear these caseloads. The pandemic not only slowed down judicial processes and jury trials, but new social distancing rules also limited capacity once courtrooms reopened, Alonso said.

A judge had urged Becton and Lipetzky to alleviate an immense backlog of misdemeanor cases that was burdening the courts, the district attorney said.

Yet, if diversion programs help the courts run more efficiently, they also play a significant role in unwinding a system that disproportionately traps people of color. In 2018, the Contra Costa Sheriff’s Office arrested 864 people for drug possession, according to federal statistics. One-fifth of them — 172 people — were Black, even though Black people comprise one-tenth of the county’s population.

Public sentiment has evolved since the War on Drugs took root in the 1970s, Becton said.

“I like to think around the country this really is not only what district attorneys are doing, but also what our community is calling for,” she said. “And that is to move a lot of these low-level, nonviolent cases away from our criminal justice system and into some other kind of method of accountability or treatment.”

San Francisco began a similar program in 2017, diverting drug possession suspects into health care programs before they are arrested and booked. Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen said last year that he would stop charging most low-level drug possession cases. Alameda County has stopped prosecuting many drug crimes, and those that do get charged “go to a collborative court that generally results in dismissal,” said Teresa Drenick, a spokeswoman for District Attorney Nancy O’Malley.

In Contra Costa, the diversion method applies not only to these drug offenses, but also to minor crimes such as disturbing the peace and petty theft. People already on probation, suspects who are accused of stealing items worth more than $300, or those who commit multiple offenses within a 12-month period would still face charges.

Lipetzky commended the Contra Costa district attorney’s new approach as a departure from the “outdated and unworkable policies of the past.” She said it would save taxpayer money, while ending a perpetual loop of arrests, jail and probation for many people.

Tamisha Torres-Walker was one of them. The Richmond-born mother is now a candidate for Antioch City Council and the executive director of the Safe Return Project, an organization fighting racial disparities in prison. But 11 years ago, she was incarcerated in the West County Detention Facility.

“It was completely preventable,” Torres-Walker said, describing her arson conviction as a byproduct of unresolved trauma: a mother suffering from addiction, stints of homelessness, time in and out of foster care, abusive relationships.

By age 18, Torres-Walker said, she was an alcoholic and had been arrested 22 times for minor crimes; it wasn’t until the 2009 arson charge that law enforcement steered her into treatment.

Despite receiving a plea deal from a compassionate judge, Torres-Walker had to contend with the stigma attached to a criminal record. She praised Becton for seeing how intractable the cycle can be.

“We have to talk differently about who is ending up in this system,” she said.

Rachel Swan
San Francisco Chronicle

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