The San Diego County District Attorney’s Office has a rich history of paving the way in innovative responses to criminal justice changes and reform. Specifically, the various areas of the division work to identify and work with low-level defendants fighting substance abuse, mental health challenges or other issue to hold them accountable, get them treatment or other assistance and steer them away from jail and the criminal justice system. The division was originally a sub-unit within the Case Issuance Division in 2013 and formally become the Collaborative Courts Division in 2015.
This division is led by Deputy District Attorneys Brent Neck and Ana De Santiago. The division consists of four teams: Collaborative Courts Calendar Team, Restitution Recovery Team, Conviction Review Unit, and Lifer Hearing unit. The division is also responsible for responding to the thousands of Prop 47 and Prop 64 petitions that have been filed and continue to be filed with our Superior Court.
The division represents the District Attorney’s office at committees, task forces, and monthly meetings with different criminal justice and community partners working on developing solutions to address the differing public safety concerns and criminogenic needs of the AB109 population. In addition, in 2018 the Collaborative Courts Division helped to launch and implement the San Diego District Attorney Community Justice Initiative (DA CJI) which provides eligible low-level defendants the opportunity to earn a dismissal of their case upon successfully completing a 12-hour Cognitive Behavioral Therapy class and four hours of volunteer work.
COURTS CALENDARS TEAM (CCT)
The CCT is staffed by five Deputy District Attorneys who are responsible for specializing in the intricacies of each of their courts. Each DDA works collaboratively with the court and a team of criminal justice partners within each of these courts. Our collaborative justice partners include: San Diego Superior Court, Public Defender’s Office, Probation Department, Sheriff’s Department, psychologists, therapists, substance abuse treatment providers, mental health treatment providers, and case workers. Deputies assigned to each of these courts advocate 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.
CCT staffs the following collaborative courts: Mandatory Supervision Court, Behavioral Health Court, Veterans Treatment Court, Reentry Court, Drug Court, Homeless Court, and the bi-annual “Stand Down” Court Program. The division is also responsible for staffing the daily high-volume parole and post-release community supervision revocation hearing calendar. In addition, the Collaborative Courts Division also participates in the multi-disciplinary team meeting for the recently-developed Vista Detention Center’s Veterans Housing Module.
The work of each calendar team DDA is focused on a collaborative team approach in tackling issues and responses to address the criminogenic needs affecting their designated court population in order to make our community safer. Our CCT deputies are on-call and available 24 hours a day, seven days a week to respond to and address last minute court’s inquiries whenever an issue arises with any of the participants that require immediate attention. Such quick round-the-clock responses assure that the individual court provides quick responses to dynamic risk factors such as: relapses, concerning behavioral disruptions, discharge from treatment and absconding, etc. This method of close supervision and collaborative work within each of our CCT courts has led to successful programming resulting in lower recidivism rates.
The collaborative team approach includes team meetings prior to each of the calendars. During the team meetings, the team reviews the progress of every participant on calendar to address concerning behaviors, acknowledge successful progress, and plan for future programming. The goal of these team meetings is to fully address each participant’s criminogenic needs, so that they may become self-reliant, employed, and productive members of society.
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 2018, there were about 614 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.
Behavioral Health Court
Behavioral Health Court provides services to defendants, who are suffering from a serious mental illness. To participate, defendants must first plead guilty to their crime and be probation eligible. When accepted into the program, participants are supervised intensively to assure a safe transition from custody to the community. In the community, participants are provided with stable housing, counseling or psychiatric care, and medication, when warranted. Participants engage in intensive case management, attend regular meetings with a multi-disciplinary team, and are monitored by a designated probation officer. Participants must appear in court once a month, so the multi-disciplinary team can assess their progress and provide the support needed to successfully graduate from the program. To graduate, participants must successfully complete 4 performance-based phases over a minimum period of 18 months. If participants graduate, their criminal case can potentially be reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor and/or dismissed, depending on the circumstances and decision of the program’s judge. Behavioral Health Court expanded in 2018. The number of participants increased by 39 percent, ending 2018 with a total of 54 participants (maximum capacity is 60).
Veterans Treatment Court
This cutting-edge, collaborative justice project is designed to assist veterans who commit crimes 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. Eight veterans successfully graduated from the program in 2018, and the program saw its highest levels of enrollment since its inception. The treatment program typically lasts from 18 to 36 months. In addition, veterans have 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 and/or Veterans Village of San Diego. In 2018, 720 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 with their lives. The District Attorney’s Office worked with the Public Defender’s Office at Stand Down in 2018 to resolve minor outstanding criminal matters in 378 cases. In 2018, we also 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 over 20 veterans at the North County Stand Down. In addition, the District Attorney’s Office partnered with the San Diego Superior Court and Public Defender to bring a Justice Day to the Alpha Project bridge shelter in East Village. During this event, residents of the shelter were offered legal counseling and twelve residents were able to resolve their outstanding traffic warrants, citations, and infractions.
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 has steadily increased The profile of accepted clients has 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.
This is a special court that hears selected cases involving low to mid-level offenders who are charged with a variety of offenses but 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. Together, these efforts teach the participants how to live as functioning, law-abiding citizens in our community. Participation in the program unfortunately has declined as a result of Proposition 47, which made certain felonies – such as drug possession – a misdemeanor. However, in response to the change in the law, the program evolved to accept other addiction-driven offenses as well as adapting to accept a broader spectrum of the co-occurring population. Drug Court 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 124 defendants graduated from Drug Court across the county in 2018.
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. On average, San Diego has approximately 1,620 people on PRCS each month. Of those people, approximately 64 of them are registered sex offenders. In 2018, we addressed 1,939 Petitions for Revocations of Post Release Community Supervision. The post release calendar typically sees about 45 to 55 offenders per week. In 2018, 213 new felony cases and 224 new misdemeanor cases were filed where the offender was on post-release community supervision.
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. By the end of 2018, there were 2,673 people on parole supervision with 637 of those parolees classified as high-risk sex offenders. In 2018, we addressed 841 Petitions for Revocations of Parole. In 2018, 77 new felony cases and 127 new misdemeanor cases were filed where the offender was on parole supervision.
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 processing and reviewing petitions for eligibility, resentencing eligible offenders, conducting dangerousness hearings and litigating legal issues created by the law. In 2018, we processed about 1,350 petitions and resentenced about 1,070 cases. Overall, since Proposition 47 went into effect, the unit has processed more than 33,738 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 2018, the unit processed about 780 petitions and resentenced about 700 cases.
San Diego County District Attorney Community Justice Initiative (DA CJI)
In April of 2018, the innovative DA CJI program was launched in South Bay Superior Court. The DA CJI uses evidence-based practices and restorative justice principles to hold defendants accountable yet gives them the opportunity to address their decision-making and move forward without a record of a criminal conviction. Low-level misdemeanants are given the opportunity to earn a dismissal of their case upon successfully completing a 12-hour Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) class and four hours of volunteer work. CBT is a problem-focused, therapeutic approach that attempts to help individuals identify and change beliefs, thoughts, and patterns that contribute to problematic behaviors. CBT programs emphasize individual accountability and attempt to help individuals understand their thinking processes and the impacts of the choices they make.
The DA CJI program aims to reduce recidivism by addressing the root cause of the participant’s behavior and lowering incarceration levels by providing an opportunity for early intervention. The DA CJI program faciliates the efficient use of resources by reducing the number of court hearings and the time police officers spend in court hearings. In addition, the program allows offenders a chance to avoid a criminal conviction and further involvement with the justice system. This is accomplished by connecting offenders to the community-based organizations that can best provide services and address specific needs. In its first year, 251 misdemeanor cases were accepted into the program. And more than 100 defendants have already successfully completed the program and their case was dismissed.
The DA CJI program will be rolling out to East County Superior Court in early 2019 and to North County Superior Court later in 2019.
Restitution Recovery Team (RRT)
Beginning in January of 2018, the San Diego District Attorney’s Office made a firm commitment to improve victim services in the area of criminal restitution. Staffed with a full-time Deputy District Attorney and paralegal, the Restitution Recovery Team (RRT) has obtained over two million dollars in criminal restitution orders for nearly 150 crime victims in its first year of operation. The RRT also handles approximately 200 calls per month from crime victims with questions about the restitution process, as well as numerous emails and questions from the Office of Revenue and Recovery (ORR) and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation regarding restitution issues and problems in particular cases. In addition to handling restitution cases in court, advising crime victims about the restitution process and collaborating with our justice partners, the RRT has also worked on several special projects in support of crime victims and educating staff. First, we worked in collaboration with the County Counsel’s Office and the County Recorder’s Office to eliminate additional fees imposed on victims filing a restitution form. Second, we provided several trainings to attorneys, court staff, paralegals and victim advocates, including a one-hour office-wide live stream training entitled “Restitution Matters.” Third, in collaboration with ORR, the RRT took on a project to provide ORR with victim contact information in approximately 300 cases where money had already been collected for restitution. Also, because there are nearly 4000 such cases in existence at ORR, the RRT pursued grant funding to help ORR clear this backlog of cases. Lastly, the RRT is currently in the process of revising and updating the public DA website to provide victims direct access to information and forms to file their restitution requests in a more timely and efficient manner.
Conviction Review Unit
The George “Woody” Clarke Conviction Review Unit (CRU) was established in March 2016. The CRU reviews and investigates post-conviction claims of innocence and makes recommendations to the District Attorney about the disposition of those claims.
The CRU works in close partnership with the Public Defender, Defense Bar and the California Innocence Project.
Applications for conviction review are accepted from anyone with credible and verifiable evidence of a convicted person’s innocence. The public CRU website, www.sdcda.org/office/ConvictionReview/, posts a fillable PDF application that can be submitted via email or by US mail. The CRU has received 95 applications since its inception, 11 of which were received in 2018.
With the help of the Issuing and Extraditions Division’s CODIS DNA Hit/DA Case Management System Integration Project, the CRU also follows up on all post-conviction “CODIS DNA Hits” in which the DNA hit belongs to a person other than the person convicted of a crime. 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 contacts the trial prosecutor in these instances to make certain that the trial prosecutor is aware of the DNA hit and helps with further follow up.
The CRU also continues its work on the DNA Mixture Project, which involves organizing and analyzing voluminous data, and collaborating with the Public Defender’s Office, the defense bar and the local crime labs.
In Fall 2017, the District Attorney tasked the CRU with identifying cases that went to trial which a DNA mixture was used to prosecute defendants. The DA sought this information because forensic labs are now following more conservative interpretive methodology for low-level DNA mixtures. Local crime labs have also deployed new and more sensitive software that generate statistical data for interpretation of complex DNA profiles. The more conservative interpretive approach coupled with new technology have the potential to change the statistics and conclusions in past low-level DNA mixture cases.
In 2018, the CRU sifted through and organized data produced by a query inputted into the District Attorney’s Case Management System. About 1,500 cases were identified that involved violent and serious offenses from 2003 through 2016 and that went to trial. From there CRU Attorneys identified about 350 cases in which DNA linking the defendant to the crime was used at trial. Those cases were further analyzed and filtered to determine which involved a DNA mixture. The District Attorney invited counsel in roughly 250 cases to request recalculation of the raw data generated from the original DNA testing by using the current guidelines. The CRU is still in the process of reviewing each case with a representative from the Public Defender’s Office to assure that each case is given a second look and to determine whether the DNA mixture should be recalculated.
The District Attorney has made the commitment to remedy any wrongful conviction or material injustice that may be discovered through the DNA Mixture Project. For example, in Summer 2018, the DA offered a new trial to Donnell Fulcher, a man convicted of first-degree murder in 2006. A DNA mixture recalculation from Mr. Fulcher’s case resulted in DNA profiles statistically dropping out of DNA mixtures found on key pieces of evidence that tied him to the crime. Due to other evidence in the case, prosecutors remain convinced that Mr. Fulcher was responsible for gunning down the victim. But they also agree that the changes in DNA mixture evidence interpretation, make the original arguments to the jury about the DNA mixture evidence in Mr. Fulcher’s trial, in retrospect, overstated, warranting a remedy.
Lifer Hearing Unit
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 is given a life sentence, the Lifer Hearing Unit processes the case to ensure that it 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 334 lifer parole hearings scheduled. Of those, 84 inmates received parole grants from the California Board of Parole Hearings. The remainder of the hearings –250– resulted in denials, postponements or stipulations to a denial of parole. Three parole grants were overturned by Governor Edmund G. Brown. Even though there has been a shift statewide to a higher rate of parole grants, San Diego County has a much lower grant rate than other counties without a Lifer Unit.
In addition, the Lifer Hearing Unit tracks court activity on lifer cases and assists the Attorney General’s Office in opposing writs of habeas corpus seeking release. The Lifer Hearing Unit also submits amicus briefs on behalf of the California District Attorneys Association on important cases. The Lifer Hearing Unit is the state-wide 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.