The Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office says it will no longer file charges against most people arrested or cited solely for possessing small amounts of illegal drugs.
The Mercury News reports prosecutors say they want to keep one- and two-time offenders out of the court system and instead divert them to drug treatment programs.
They say the change will allow them to focus on more serious addiction cases that can become community nuisances or public-safety concerns.
Assistant District Attorney David Angel tells the newspaper its office spends the majority of its time on low-level, public-health cases.
A review found that in 2018, close to 15% of the roughly 35,000 cases charged in the county were misdemeanor drug possession. About 90% of those, or 4,500 cases, involved people for whom the drug possession charge was their first or second offense of the year.
“What we’re trying to do is shift that back, so that the public-health cases are handled by the public-health system, and the public-safety cases that we’ll have left are handled by the criminal-justice system,” Angel said.
Santa Clara County will join a small number of jurisdictions across the country experimenting with treating minor drug possession as a public-health issue.
Criminal justice advocates say the policy shift will cut out thousands of work hours for judges, attorneys and police officers.
“It’s incredibly impactful,” county Public Defender Molly O’Neal said. “It takes forever to get a case charged. Then if you miss court, you get picked up by police. To make court, you miss work or can’t pick your children up from school. It’s a whole domino effect that can be avoided and should be avoided.”
Critics say that softening penalties for drug possession runs the risk of encouraging other criminal behavior associated with illegal drugs, such as burglaries or robberies to pay for offenders’ habits.
Angel said the new approach applies only to minor drug possession cases.
“If they’re committing another crime, we’re still going to arrest and prosecute them for the other crime,” he said.
The new policy is expected to be implemented by the end of the summer.