By David Liebler.
As the defendant steps up for his court hearing, Judge Denine Guy comments how he is wearing a different Star Wars T-shirt from his last appearance. She asks him how many he has and he replies, “Six or seven.” In a legal system where misdemeanors are often looked at in terms of specific case numbers rather than the individuals behind them, Judge Guy’s comments stand out. She remembers this defendant; she knows his story and what it will take to help him turn his life around.
The scene is played out again and again as part of a Santa Cruz County program where the focus is on helping individuals get off the streets and break the cycle of crime or hospitalizations. Launched in 2014, the Bob Lee Community Partnership for Accountability, Connection and Treatment (PACT) is an effective, collaborative program between the county and city. Its roots are in a city program focusing on the downtown area, but it has grown to include a variety of county services, including the district attorney, public defender, probation, sheriff, mental health and social services, as well as city and community groups.
It was then-District Attorney Bob Lee who brought these groups together in 2013 to work on a common challenge: dealing with chronic offenders and offering the services – and accountability – they need. While the number of offenders was relatively small, they had been arrested thousands of times – and were creating a perception that downtown was unsafe.
“This is really a health-driven crisis and not a criminal justice-driven crisis. Addiction, mental health, homelessness … the issues and challenges these people are facing are really health related,” explains Susie O’Hara, PACT program manager.
The PACT program emphasizes street outreach to identify potential clients and a vertical prosecution model that uses the same judge, district attorney and public defender. This consistency allows for the parties to get to know each offender’s background and needs, and then tailor a specific course of action in hopes of breaking the cycle.
“One of the key pieces of the program is that you are offering both help to the offenders as well as accountability,” explains Santa Cruz County Supervisor Ryan Coonerty.
The investment of resources on the front-end saves the county and city money, helps those in need and enhances the quality of life for local residents. As both a locally elected official and downtown business owner, Supervisor Coonerty has seen the program’s positive impacts first-hand.
O’Hara says statistics show the program’s success. “After the first year we saw a 70 percent reduction in arrests and citations.”
District Attorney Rosell is a big advocate of the program and he enthusiastically carries on the work of Bob Lee, who was his predecessor and close friend.
“I don’t think you are ever going to go wrong if you get folks at the table working together who are all working on a different aspect of the same problem,” he says. “It’s just smart business.”