The Collaborative Courts Division, which was established as its own division in 2015, was previously under the Case Issuance and Extradition Division. It advocates for the best solutions to protect public safety while transitioning offenders back into the community, with appropriate treatment and supervision to reduce the likelihood of recidivism. This division is led by Deputy District Attorneys Rachel Solov and Brent Neck. The division represents the District Attorney’s Office in a number of court programs including Behavioral Health Court, Drug Court, Reentry Court, Veterans Treatment Court, Homeless Court, and Veterans Stand Down. In addition, Deputy District Attorneys are assigned to San Diego County’s innovative Mandatory Supervision Court. Each prosecutor specializes in the intricacies of these particular courts.
The Collaborative Courts Division also participates in the multi-disciplinary team meeting for the recently-developed Vista Detention Center’s Veterans Housing Module. This division also has prosecutors assigned to the Conviction Review Unit and the Lifer Unit. Finally, the division provides staff for the high-volume parole and post-release community supervision calendars.
This is a special court that hears selected cases involving non-violent offenders who are charged with certain non-violent offenses and whose crime is related to a substance use disorder. It saves taxpayer dollars, reduces recidivism, and it helps get people’s lives back on track. Drug Court’s success is as a result of its frequent random drug testing, judicial supervision, drug treatment counseling and its educational and vocational training opportunities. Participation in the program has unfortunately declined as a result of Proposition 47, which made certain felonies – such as drug possession – a misdemeanor. However, in spite of the change in the law, the program continues to be an important option for holding defendants accountable and getting them the help they need to address substance abuse problems. A total of 118 defendants graduated from Drug Court across the county in 2017.
Reentry Court Program
Reentry Court is based on the Drug Court model. It differs in the way it provides an even higher level of supervision and support. The number of participants in Reentry Court steadily increased to a high of 56 participants in 2017. As with Drug Court, the program lost participants due to Proposition 47. The profile of accepted clients expanded to include defendants with more serious criminal records and co-occurring disorders. There has also been an expansion to accept defendants on mandatory supervision and parole revocations. In order to graduate, participants must complete a rigorous treatment program, advance their education, participate in job training, and maintain their sobriety. Six participants graduated from Reentry Court in 2017.
Veterans Treatment Court
This cutting-edge, collaborative justice project is designed to assist veterans who commit crime as a result of mental illness or substance abuse related to their military service. Treatment providers from the military community join with the San Diego Superior Court, Probation Department, defense attorneys, and District Attorney’s Office to create customized rehabilitative plans for each veteran. The program strives to reintegrate veterans into law-abiding society. Each year, participation in the program has increased. The Veterans Treatment Court, which began in 2011, continues to address the needs of its participants. In order to graduate from the program, participants must successfully complete an intensive program of therapy, give back to the community through service projects, and demonstrate they are no longer a threat to public safety. Seventeen veterans successfully graduated from the program in 2017, which tied the previous year’s record number of graduates. The program typically lasts from 18 to 36 months. In addition, 20 veterans had their cases expunged and rights restored as a result of their participation and rehabilitation.
Homeless Court/Stand Down
Homeless Court continues to operate efficiently and effectively on a monthly basis at St. Vincent DePaul Village or Veterans Village of San Diego. In 2017, 630 individuals participated in Homeless Court. Collaborative Courts also participated in Stand Down, an annual summer event. Stand Down is an innovative program that helps local homeless veterans get off the streets and back on track. The District Attorney’s Office worked with the Public Defender’s Office to resolve minor outstanding criminal matters for more than 81 Veterans. In 2017, we participated in a second Stand Down for North County to address justice issues facing homeless veterans from State Route 56 to the Riverside County line. We resolved minor outstanding matters for 29 veterans at the North County Stand Down.
Behavioral Health Court
Behavioral Health Court aims to provide services to defendants who are suffering from serious mental illness. In 2016, capacity for this program was expanded – doubling from 30 to 60 spots for participants. Participants in this court are supervised intensively to insure a safe transition into the community where they are provided with stable housing, counseling or psychiatric care, and medication, when warranted. In order to graduate, participants must successfully complete four performance-based phases over a minimum period of 18 months. The participants have intensive case management and regular meetings with a multi-disciplinary team and are monitored by a designated Behavioral Health Court Probation Officer to ensure compliance. Participants are required to take part in monthly court appearances before the program’s judge. In 2017, four participants graduated from Behavioral Health Court.
Post Release Community Supervision
Collaborative Courts is also responsible for handling all post-release community supervision revocation matters. It acts as the office wide liaison to the Probation Department’s Post Release Offender Unit. The post release calendar typically sees about 50 to 60 offenders per week.
Similar to the Post Release Community Supervision program, the Collaborative Courts Division is responsible for handling all parole revocations in San Diego County. The assigned Deputy District Attorney is also the liaison between the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s Department of Adult Parole and our office. In 2017, we addressed 785 Petitions for Revocations of Parole.
A Collaborative Courts Deputy District Attorney continues to staff San Diego’s Mandatory Supervision Court, which leads the state in creatively and effectively supervising, treating and stopping the revolving door of recidivist offenders who receive split sentences. During 2017, there were about 657 participants in the program. The increase in the number of offenders on mandatory supervision has led to the addition of a second weekly court calendar. Participants are brought to court about four weeks before their release from custody to review the terms of supervision which are guided by their assessment and case plan (i.e., residential/outpatient treatment, cognitive behavioral therapy, job training, mental and physical health, etc.). Upon release, they will reside in a home that has been pre-approved by probation or they will live in a residence provided by a treatment program or sober living facility. Participants must submit to random drug testing, meet with mental and physical health professionals and take prescribed medication if necessary. They meet regularly with their probation officers, must successfully complete appropriate treatment programs, and attend follow-up court dates to provide the court with information on how they are progressing in their treatment plans. If they are in violation of the terms of their mandatory supervision, then they will be arrested and placed back into custody. They will then be brought back before the court where a decision will be made on whether they should be given another chance to be supervised in the community or return to custody for the remainder of their sentence.
California voters passed Proposition 47 in November 2014, which enacted the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act. It makes non-serious, non-violent crimes misdemeanors instead of felonies including petty theft and drug possession, unless the defendant has prior convictions for specified violent or serious crimes. In addition, the law authorizes consideration of resentencing for anyone who is currently serving a sentence and reclassification as a misdemeanor for qualifying offenses. The Collaborative Courts Division worked with justice partners and the IT Department to prepare for the new law. We are responsible for reviewing petitions for eligibility, resentencing eligible offenders, conducting dangerousness hearings and litigating legal issues created by the law. In 2017, we processed about 1,400 petitions and resentenced about 1,100 cases. Overall, since Proposition 47 went into effect, the unit has processed more than 32,000 petitions.
In November of 2016, California Voters passed Proposition 64, which enacted the Marijuana Legalization Initiative Statute. Proposition 64 legalizes possession of small amounts of marijuana by adults 21 years of age and older. The new law changed the penalty for marijuana offenses involving juveniles, and made cultivation, transportation and sale of marijuana not involving crossing state lines a misdemeanor unless the defendant has certain designated prior convictions. In addition, the law authorizes consideration of resentencing for anyone who is currently serving a sentence and reclassification as a misdemeanor for qualifying offenses. The District Attorney’s Office worked with justice partners and the IT Department to prepare for the new law. The Collaborative Courts Division is responsible for reviewing petitions for eligibility, resentencing eligible offenders, conducting dangerousness hearings and litigating some of the legal issues created by Proposition 64. In 2017, the unit processed about 420 petitions and resentenced about 390 cases.
The DA’s Lifer Hearing Unit has two main goals: to ensure that dangerous prisoners with life sentences are not released carelessly or improvidently, and to ensure that crime victims and their families are given an opportunity to participate in the parole hearing process and have their voices heard.
When a defendant if given a life sentence, the Lifer Hearing Unit ensures that the case is ready for future parole suitability hearings. This involves preserving victims’ statements and documenting the gravity of the crimes to ensure the offenders serve sentences proportional to their crimes.
Last year, there were 358 lifer parole hearings scheduled. Of those, 69 inmates received parole grants from the California Board of Parole Hearings. The remainder of the hearings – 289 – resulted in denials, postponements or stipulations to a denial of parole. Eight parole grants were overturned by Governor Edmund G. Brown. Even though there has been a statewide shift to a higher rate of parole grants, San Diego County has a much lower grant rate than other counties without a Lifer Unit. The Lifer Hearing Unit also tracks court activity on lifer cases and assists the Attorney General’s Office in opposing writs of habeas corpus seeking release. It submits amicus briefs on behalf of the California District Attorneys Association on important cases.
The unit is the statewide leader in lifer matters and San Diego County serves as the training office for other prosecutors who seek to understand the complex laws governing parole hearings. In addition, due to prisoner release orders by the Three Judge Court in the Coleman v. Brown litigation, the Lifer Hearing Unit also handles elder parole hearings, youthful offender parole hearings and expanded medical parole hearings, on both indeterminately and determinately sentenced inmates.
Conviction Review Unit
Continuing the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office tradition of assuring post-conviction justice, the George “Woody” Clarke Conviction Review Unit was established in early 2016. The Conviction Review Unit (CRU) reviews and investigates post-conviction claims of innocence and makes recommendations to the District Attorney about the disposition of those claims.
The CRU operates in close partnership with the Public Defender, Defense Bar and the San Diego Innocence Project. There were two Deputy District Attorneys assigned to the unit in 2017.
Applications for case reviews are accepted from all sources including incarcerated offenders, attorneys, family, friends, the Innocence Project and concerned citizens. Application reviews are on a first come, first served basis. The CRU has a user-friendly website. The website can be found at http://www.sdcda.org/office/ConvictionReview/. The website contains fillable PDF Applications for Conviction Review. Anyone with credible and verifiable evidence of a person’s innocence are encouraged to visit the website and submit an Application for Conviction Review.
In order for the Conviction Review Unit to review a case, the following criteria must be met:
- The conviction must have occurred in San Diego County Superior Court.
- The applicant must still be in custody, serving time on the sentence for which he or she was convicted.
- The conviction must be for a violent and or serious felony as defined by Penal Code sections such as murder, rape, robbery, etc.
- The application for review must be based on credible and verifiable evidence of innocence, or new technologies that exist to test or retest remaining relevant evidence.
- The applicant agrees to fully cooperate with the CRU, which includes providing disclosure of all relevant information during the review process.
Since the Conviction Review Unit was formed in March 2016, the CRU has received 84 applications. The Conviction Review Unit received 25 applications during 2017 and has closed out 17 cases in 2017, none of which reversed convictions.
Additionally, the Conviction Review Unit follows up on all “CODIS DNA Hits” where the DNA hit belongs to a person other than the person convicted of a crime. Working closely, with the Case Issuance Division’s CODIS DNA Hit/DA Case Management System Integration Project, our office was one of the first in the nation to track DNA hits within its electronic Case Management System. This makes it possible to discover a wrongful conviction when a DNA hit belongs to someone other than the individual prosecuted and incarcerated. The CRU follows-up on every such DNA hit where the DNA hit belongs to someone other than the individual prosecuted and incarcerated.
Finally, in 2017 the Conviction Review Unit worked on proposed legislation that would have made it mandatory for Courts around the State to preserve evidence for the entire length of time a person convicted of a serious or violent felony was incarcerated for a crime. The CRU believes that the preservation of evidence is critical to allow for meaningful post-conviction forensic testing that may prove a person is innocent years after that person was convicted. This important proposed legislation garnered wide-spread support from our justice partners including the defense Bar and the California Innocence Project. Unfortunately, the bill did not pass the legislature, but the CRU will continue to advocate for evidence preservation.