Therapy, Volunteer Hours to Replace Jail for Some Offenders: DA

Therapy and volunteer work would replace jail and a criminal records for some people accused of misdemeanor charges in San Diego under a new program announced Thursday.

San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan discussed the new initiative that would steer low-level offenders away from jail and offer some of them a second chance. 

“Misdemeanor convictions can have damaging effects that can last a lifetime,” said Stephan.

The program called DA Community Justice Initiative would offer defendants facing low-level criminal charges like shoplifting, non-DUI traffic violations or vandalism another option.

If they complete 12 hours of cognitive behavioural therapy classes along with four hours of volunteer work, the case would be dismissed and the defendant’s record sealed.

“No violent offenses qualify,” Stephan said.

South Bay was first to begin the program. Most recently, it has expanded into the North County.

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Of 586 participants to date, 210 people have successfully completed the program and had their cases dismissed. Only 2 percent have a new case filed against them, the district attorney said.

“That’s an incredibly low recidivism rate of 2 percent,” said Stephan.

The conditions must be met within 120 days for the charges to be dismissed. If the conditions are not met, the defendant returns to court for sentencing on the misdemeanor.

Attorneys whose work involves defending those people accused of misdemeanor crimes called the program "progressive", "forward thinking" and "innovative" at the event where the DA's office announced the program.

Eight, 90-minute classes address values and goals, according to Laura Soto, LCSW, Director of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Adult Justice Programs with SAY San Diego.

"People make mistakes and we talk about the mistake and doing 'choice and consequence' the next time this could come up," Soto said. "We want to make sure they have the skills and the techniques to get them through that." 

The ages of the participants in the classes range from 18 to 80. 

"Yes, they made a mistake," she said. "We also talk about how they can move forward so they don't get stuck."

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