Public Safety Citizen Task Force adopts policy recommendations for City Council
Bryan Matthew Martin—a local recidivist whose rap sheet, dating back to 2003, includes check fraud, meth possession, and felony auto theft—is a name that, for the Public Safety Citizen Task Force, reflects possible negligence in sentencing by the Santa Cruz County Superior Court system.
In 2006, Martin was convicted of 13 felonies for drug- and theft-related charges, for which the court ordered an almost five-year suspended prison sentence, meaning if he violated his terms of probation, he would automatically serve the prison time, says city employee Susan O’Hara, who served as facilitator for the Task Force. The group was formed by the City’s Public Safety Committee in January to allow a core group of community stakeholders to form recommendations for City Council on improving public safety. O’Hara did not serve as a member of the Task Force or vote on recommendations, but rather helped to coordinate the group and document its findings.
Following the 2006 convictions, Martin was convicted of four misdemeanors over the course of four years, but instead of triggering the prison time, the courts only issued him new probation sentences.
“[Martin] had multiple occurrences where a judge from the Superior Court would suspend a prison sentence, so they essentially say, ‘This is your last chance, if you violate your probation you’re going to go to prison,’” O’Hara says. “Subsequently, when he would violate his probation—sometimes with felonies—the suspended sentence was never imposed.”
Task Force Chair Kris Reyes says the 15-member group has heard a great deal of compelling testimony about repeat offenders and the degree to which the people who are committing crimes, like Martin, are still on the streets of Santa Cruz.
One of the more than 70 recommendations that the Public Safety Citizen Task Force has drafted for the Santa Cruz City Council to review, starting Tuesday, Dec. 3, is for the Santa Cruz County Grand Jury to investigate the County Superior Court and the presiding officials’ use of discretionary power to sentence offenders.
For the past six months, the Task Force has deliberated over the core problems plaguing Santa Cruz and devised a set of recommendations, which were adopted by the Task Force at its final meeting on Wednesday, Nov. 20 at the Civic Auditorium.
The group outlined a list of the 17 highest priority recommendations for the City Council, and though the Grand Jury recommendation is not among them, there are parts that address the issue of recidivism and Superior Court accountability.
According to the “highest priority list” recommendations, the Task Force states that the criminal justice system should be held accountable for under-serving the community as it relates to low-level crimes and drug offenses.
It claims that “improved accountability should be in the form of increased transparency, consistent adjudication of the City’s municipal code violations, and implementation of a specialty court model.”
In order to criminalize the repeat, low-level offenders, who the Task Force identifies as a main source of diminishing public safety, the group recommends that the Superior Court issue a misdemeanor warrant after someone fails to appear in court within a six-month timeframe.
The Task Force reviewed the case of Miguel DeLeon, a 40-year-old “serial municipal code infraction offender,” according to O’Hara’s report, as one cause of the Santa Cruz Police Department’s overload and the court’s shortcomings in case adjudication.
DeLeon has accumulated hundreds of unpaid municipal code citations, has cost the City tens of thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours of police and City Attorney time, the report says.
In 2009, driven by a variety of complaints from downtown business owners, the City filed a permanent civil injunction against DeLeon, prohibiting him from sleeping or committing municipal code violations downtown, which a judge granted. However, his citations continue to stack up and he continues to ignore them, according to the report.
“Right now,” O’Hara says, “it’s just a civil process when [offenders] fail to appear. But, the City has an ordinance that says, with those three failures to appear, the City Attorney can prosecute on a misdemeanor charge.”
This recommendation would make it so that the misdemeanor warrant is issued without the City having to intervene and prosecute, which would give the police the authority to pick up the repeat municipal code offenders with the misdemeanor bench warrant.
The recommendation also advises that the Superior Court presiding judge be required to appear twice annually before City Council to present on what the court is doing to address high recidivism rates and receive input from Councilmembers and the City Attorney.
The specialty court model would cater on a case-by-case basis to crimes relating to substance abusers and mentally ill or homeless offenders, striking a balance between treatment and judicial monitoring to enforce court-ordered sanctions.
People who go through the specialty court would be required to receive treatment or be incarcerated, O’Hara says.
An example of the kind of offender the specialty court could serve is 21-year-old local heroin addict Nate, whose last name the SCPD could not provide. Nate sustains an $80 per day drug habit by stealing around town and panhandling. SCPD officers, who have regular contacts with Nate, spotted him last summer and recruited him to testify before the Task Force about his addiction.
Nate, who has multiple felonies and many layers of probation, told the Task Force he is not interested in rehab because they are “overly religious” or require hard labor. He claimed the only way for him to get clean would be jail time.
“Right now, most of our treatment programs are not coerced,” O’Hara says, citing the report. “If you’re sent to a treatment program rather than going to jail, you can go for the first day and then walk out. The Task Force, I think, finds that [a specialty court] would be more effective for dealing with our repeat offenders than the current system.”
More broadly, the Task Force’s recommendations comprise a four-pronged approach: prevention, strategic enforcement with accountability, collaborative oversight, and appropriate funding.
“The crux of the recommendations is this attempt to be evenly balanced between managing criminality upstream of the problem with prevention programs, and then also a strategy of managing criminality downstream of the problem, with strategic enforcement and recidivism reduction measures,” O’Hara says.
“Upstream,” the Task Force recommends a heavy focus on programming activities for youth.
“Keeping pre-at-risk and at-risk kids busy with after-school programs was a really important priority for improving conditions around gang affiliation, drug addiction and other criminal behavior,” she says.
On the subject of one of the community’s most hot-button topics—needle exchange—the Task Force has recommended that the County’s Syringe Exchange Program implement a syringe identification tagging program, operate on a strict one-for-one basis and relocate the operation away from the Emeline neighborhood to a County-owned, non-residential property.
While the Grand Jury recommendation is a result of the Task Force’s findings, the Grand Jury is not the body that would investigate the Superior Court. That complaint would go through the state’s Commission on Judicial Performance.
Deborah Elston, a co-founder of the advocacy group Santa Cruz Neighbors, has attended almost every Task Force meeting for the past six months.
“No matter whether the recommendations can be followed through on or not, each recommendation is a statement in itself that something needs to be checked,” she says. “That may not be able to be done specifically in the way that they recommended, but it may be able to be done in another way, or it may open the door—hopefully not close the door—for that group to come to the table and have a conversation to say, ‘Ok, what can we do better?’”
Elston, who has attended and followed many local Superior Court trials, says that with the more serious, felony crimes, she believes the Court is fair and effective. It is the low-end crimes—drug offenses, infractions, nonviolent violations—that the Court has a problem with.
There are a variety of factors that make adjudication in the low-end crimes very difficult, such as jail capacity, lawyers’ evidence, and the probations department, she says.
“It makes you say, ‘What’s wrong with the system here?’” Elston says. But, “once you start to learn the court system, and what constraints they’re under, that’s key, because our judges—on the felonies—do work within their parameters.”