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Targeting habitual offenders: Most bang for resources

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POSTED March 23, 2010 2:14 a.m.
Scott Nicholson was arrested again on Monday.

He had just recently finished a 90-day sentence in the San Joaquin County Jail for a long list of misdemeanor charges including pilfering shopping carts and creating problems in the downtown area.

He’s not a hardened criminal as you and I would define one. He is, though, a chronic problem or, if you prefer, a habitual offender.

How authorities from law enforcement to prosecutors are dealing with men and women like Nicholson is a sign of the times.

San Joaquin County has had to become creative given the problem with overcrowding at the jail as well as draconian drops in revenue. While many of us focus on the budget trials and tribulations of cities as well as the massive mess up in Sacramento, we often forget about the counties.

The counties are the backbone not just of the criminal justice system through the jails and the courts but they are the effective agent of the state for a wide array of social services ranging from welfare and hazardous material enforcement to providing general hospital services for those who can’t afford private sector hospitals.

The county is taking a 26 percent hit in the budget this year. That means fewer prosecutors at a juncture in time where you could argue that the big problem was not enough prosecutors. Of course, there is the pesky issue of jail overcrowding.  Meanwhile, the state is opening the floodgates on early releases from prisons as a way to deal with the budget deficit that they have been putting off for more than two decades through borrowing as well as smoke and mirrors.

It is against this backdrop that the district attorney’s office has had to make some tough decisions. You may not like them, but they make sense.

Instead of simply stepping up the game of “let’s make a deal” with criminals in order to clear the backlog, District Attorney James Willett sat down with Sheriff Steve Moore and police chiefs such as Manteca’s Dave Bricker and Ripon’s Richard Bull to come up with a game plan.

The agreement was that the DA would make sure to prosecute “habitual problem criminals” in the various jurisdictions identified and the sheriff would make sure there was room for them at the jail.

They also would give the DA a heads up when they do probation sweeps and such to prosecute criminal violations arising from such sweeps.

The flip side of that is some things have to go to the wayside. It is why officers are technically correct that the DA’s office in all likelihood isn’t going to go full guns to prosecute a lone charge of possession of a crank pipe. But if it is in the possession of a parole during targeted sweep involving multiple agencies or is someone on a habitual criminal watch list, the DA will go after them.

That may strike some as being not in the best interests of keeping the peace.

But then again, what choice do any of the players in the law enforcement system within San Joaquin County really have given the financial bottom line?

Misdemeanors are still being prosecuted but only in a way that it can be the most effective.

No one is about to let serious felonies get a pass. You won’t see anyone backing off from felonies that run the gamut from domestic violence to armed robbery to rape and other such violent felonies.

Misdemeanors, of course, are another issue. Manteca issued 3,439 misdemeanor citations in 2009. And, yes, you can still get arrested for misdemeanors and prosecuted but due to the volume and sinking resources it isn’t going to happen every time.

That is the truth in a statement made by frustrated police officers when they say the DA doesn’t prosecute any more for possession of a crank pipe. There’s a caveat, though. It depends on the situation or - more precisely - how problematic the accused has been in thumbing their nose at the system.

In a way, it gets you to where you want to go to scare “straight” those who are starting to run afoul with the law. It gives them a chance to correct their behavior without suffering major consequences. But if they continue to do so thinking they get away with breaking the law, they then have earned the full force of the system being thrown against them.

In the end by targeting habitual misdemeanor criminals you still accomplish your goal of reducing the most crime that you can given your resources.
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