As a Superior Court Commissioner, I have presided in Department 3 of the San Diego Superior Court for the past several years and have personal knowledge of the process involved in handling misdemeanors in the City of San Diego. Department 3 is called "video arraignment" court and currently handles the vast majority of cases involving defendants arrested for being drunk in public under P.C. 647(f) and for illegal lodging under P.C. 647(e). Few, if any, of these defendants are able to post bail upon arrest and therefore male defendants come before me via video at the Central Jail in downtown San Diego. Female defendants are bussed to the courthouse from Las Colinas every day for arraignment, trial or sentencing and appear in person in Department 3. A vast majority of these defendants are homeless and destitute and therefore the Office of the Public Defender represents the vast majority of these defendants by providing coverage both at the jail and in the courtroom on a daily basis. The San Diego Office of the City Attorney is responsible for the prosecution of all misdemeanors within the City limits.
In cases filed pursuant to P.C. 647(f), there are standard sentencing guidelines that provide for 3 years of summary probation, a stay-away order from the site of the offense, a standard fine-usually satisfied by time in custody-and an order to abstain from alcohol in public. Additionally, upon each successive conviction, custody is imposed in increments, beginning with credit for time served for a first offense, 30 days custody for a second offense, 60 days for a third offense, and so on up to the maximum of 180 days of custody with no probation, the maximum allowable custody imposition for this offense. Since most of our defendants become "frequent fliers" with a growing list of arrests and convictions, many of them face 179 days of custody in a short amount of time.
Prior to January 2000 homeless and inebriated defendants consumed significant resources through encounters with police, fire, emergency medical services and hospital emergency rooms. Those found to be intoxicated in public were transported to an inebriate reception center where they were supervised and monitored until sober. Although encouraged to utilize the services of recovery programs, most of these individuals declined to do so and continued to abuse alcohol in public. Local treatment programs were unwilling to accept them because of their incorrigible and recidivist behavior, leaving them incarcerated for increasing amounts of time with each arrest and conviction. With costs of incarceration added to other resources utilized by this population, it was clear to many legal, law enforcement and medical professionals that something more needed to be done.
The Serial Inebriate Program (S.I.P.) began in January 2000 as a problem-solving initiative to reduce the revolving door in and out of detoxification centers, County Jail and local emergency rooms for serial inebriates. Soon thereafter, S.I.P. became part of the Court sentencing guidelines as an alternative to long jail terms. In a typical "SI.P." sentence, the defendant would be sentenced to a specific jail term, with an order that he or she be released to an "authorized representative" of the San Diego Police Department or S.I.P. to satisfy the custody by completing at least a 6-month program under the auspices of S.I.P.
In a growing number of cases over the past 9 months, we have seen defendants with so many convictions that they are facing the maximum term of 179 days if on probation but offered S.I.P. as an alternative. However, in-jail evaluations were done only after the defendant entered a plea of guilty or no contest, and experience showed that an increasing number of defendants were not getting out of jail as they expected, either because there were no beds available at the time or the evaluation concluded he or she was not amenable to a program. As a result, the public defenders often chose to plead their clients not guilty, set the case for trial and extend the time involved for disposition. Experience had shown that their clients sometimes received credit for time served by pleading not guilty, waiting for 25 days to the day of trial, and then getting released immediately by the trial judge upon the entry of a plea of guilty or no contest. Inevitably the defendant would be arrested shortly thereafter on a new charge of drunk in public.
After numerous meetings to address this situation, all parties agreed to a pilot program beginning 6/16/08 wherein S.I.P. candidates would be allowed to plead NOT guilty and be evaluated almost immediately by S.I.P. to determine amenability and availability of beds. A short readiness hearing is being set for one week in order to get the results of the evaluation, and at that time, the defendant could change his or her plea to guilty or no contest and S.I.P. will be available to place them right away. Typically termed a "pre-plea" evaluation, it is the hope of all parties involved in this process that the pilot program will result in more early dispositions and a reduction in the number of cases that are set for trial. This prevents the court trial calendar from getting clogged with these cases and addresses the issue of alcoholism in a more expeditious and effective manner.
In regard to defendants arrested for illegal lodging under P.C. 647(e), a similar sentencing alternative has been adopted involving the Homeless Outreach Team (H.O.T.) which evaluates and places defendants pleading guilty or no contest to either shelters or rehabilitation programs depending on their individual circumstances. Again, a sentence of increasing custody has been used by the court for "frequent fliers", with placement and transportation by the H.O.T. team as an alternative to serving the sentence in jail. There are no standard sentencing guidelines involving incremental custody for this offense, however, but the court has been considering incremental custody in order to implement the H.O.T. team approach to this population.
The public defenders are resistant to the idea of incarcerating people for being homeless when there are no substance use or abuse allegations in the case, partly on Constitutional grounds and partly because there have been instances of their clients falling through the proverbial cracks in getting evaluated for placement. Again, the clients were required to plead guilty or no contest with custody imposed in order to be evaluated for placement in a shelter or program. Too often there were no available beds or openings in the appropriate shelter or program and their client ended up serving out his or her sentence in jail, to everybody's detriment.
Once again, through a series of meetings with all agencies involved, a pilot program was initiated in May 2008 for "illegal lodgers" wherein the defendant facing a custody term of at least 90 days will be allowed to plead not guilty and have a one-week date set for readiness and the H.O.T. team will evaluate them right away to determine amenability and availability. Then at readiness the defendant may change his or her plea to guilty or no contest and be released right away to the H.O.T. team if the placement process is successful. Obviously, if it is NOT successful in finding an appropriate placement, the defendant may choose to continue with the not-guilty plea and have the case set for trial.
It is the hope of everyone that this new approach of "pre-plea" evaluations in both sentencing schemes will result in more pre-trial dispositions, more recovery than incarceration and more effective use of city-wide and judicial resources.
A statistical analysis of the number of cases involving the drunk-in-public and illegal-lodging populations, as well as the percentage who choose alternative sentences and the outcome of placement efforts is available through S.I.P. and H.O.T.
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