Leave pretrial diversion alone

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EDITORIAL The San Francisco Pretrial Diversion Project is one of the most successful programs in the city's criminal justice system. The project works with first-time misdemeanor offenders — people who have committed fairly minor crimes — and gives them the chance to enter a treatment program, avoid jail time, and ultimately clear their records. Over the past three years almost 94 percent of the program's graduates have stayed out of the criminal justice system — a phenomenal track record.

And yet District Attorney Kamala Harris, who by state law has ultimate control over the program, wants to eliminate the option for a significant number of people. Under her plan first-time battery offenders will no longer be eligible (and remember, battery in this case doesn't mean aggravated assault; misdemeanor battery is any kind of unwanted touching). Neither will people accused of child endangerment, criminal threats, or indecent exposure.

It's not that these crimes are always trivial, but a lot of them don't merit jail time. Jeff Adachi, the city's public defender, has a real-life example: a middle-aged woman with no prior criminal history left her five-year-old foster child in the car while she ran into a hospital to pick up a medical prescription. Then she passed out in the hospital. When she regained consciousness, she was charged with child endangerment. She would have automatically lost her child if convicted of the crime. Instead, she was able to participate in diversion, avoiding a criminal conviction and its devastating consequences.

The program also saves the city money — potentially big money. More than 500 cases a year go to diversion, and taking any one of those cases to trial could cost the public as much as $100,000. Adachi estimates that the number of offenders eligible for diversion might fall by as much as 25 percent, meaning 125 more needless cases clogging the courts, using up public time and resources — and quite possibly adding to the county jail population.

Harris argues that some violent offenders are getting diversion, but the program has been operating under the same rules for the past 20 years, and its successes have vastly overshadowed any problems.

More important, at a time when even the Republican governor of California seems to realize that the system of locking people away for ever-longer sentences isn't working, this is a bad statement for a San Francisco district attorney to make. Harris ought to back down and leave the diversion program the way it is. *