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May 30th
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Circuit Breaker?

news2 circuitAs a murderer with a long record is sentenced, Santa Cruz rolls out a new program for dealing with chronic offenders

It was a rainy November night when Jeremiah Long beat fellow homeless man Robert Powers in the head with a skateboard, leaving him to die by his campsite near Santa Cruz’s Depot Park. Long and a few others had also thrown rocks at the man that same night in 2012, according to the suspects’ confessions.

For the homicide charges stemming from that rainy November night, Long pleaded guilty. On June 13, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Although this will be Long’s longest stay in prison, it is by no means his first trip behind bars. Long has faced more than 200 charges in six years, and was usually convicted. Most were public nuisance crimes: drug and alcohol violations, illegal camping and a couple of battery charges, according to court records.

Long’s case comes just as Santa Cruz County is teaming up with the City of Santa Cruz and other groups to launch a new program aimed at chronic offenders who put a strain on police and court resources. It also might help people committing misdemeanors to navigate treatment options and seek mentorship before they commit bigger crimes.

Although Judge John Salazar didn’t mention the County’s new Downtown Accountability Program by name, the access-to-social-services theme weighed on his mind at the sentencing.

“I see it day in and day out, how we do not have enough services for people who have mental health issues. I see it. We’re locking up people who have mental health issues instead of treating them—and people who have drug addictions,” said Salazar, who handed down recommended sentences to Long and one other suspect at the hearing that day. “We don’t give them the help they need.”

The Downtown Accountability Program, also being called Pacific Garden Mall Pilot Program, will identify chronic offenders and match them with officers who will work with them to make sure they make it to their court appearances and try to help them get any other help they qualify for, like treatment or counseling.

Of course, it would be unfair to paint Jeremiah Long as the sole poster child for the problems the Downtown Accountability Program aims to fix. Between January 2011 and April 2013, 146 people accounted for 3,598 arrests, just over half of them related to drugs or alcohol, according to the Santa Cruz Police Department. Sheriff Jim Hart says that of 12,000 annual jail bookings, 5,000 are for public intoxication.

Through October 2015, the program, which is being spearheaded partly by County District Attorney Bob Lee, should cost the city and county a combined three quarters of a million dollars. That includes funds for more counseling and $79,000 for a new case manager at Encompass Community Services, which provides services to families and helps them transition into housing. The nonprofit, formerly called Santa Cruz Community Counseling, will have a new CEO in Homeless Services Director Monica Martinez as of next month.

The funds for the program will also cover the cost of a new SCPD officer, and provide more funding for probation and legal operations. Inspiration for the plan came partly out of assistant city manager Scott Collins’ similar plan for a top-100 chronic offenders program that in hindsight looks rather ambitious. The new program will focus on 30 people at a time, while also helping out a couple of dozen more.
If the popular new pilot program has an Achilles’ heel, it might be that even some of its most ardent supporters, among them Vice Mayor Don Lane and former Mayor Mike Rotkin, are saying there might be an important area that needs beefing up. In order for it to see real success in reducing drug-related offenses among the homeless population, they say, it will take bigger investments in terms of actually paying people’s housing and drug treatment costs—not small expenses, by any means.

“We’re taking it one step at a time," Collins says of the housing element. "We don’t want to throw every dollar at this one area, because the needs run the spectrum. But it’s something we’re looking at.”

Santa Cruz city staffer Susie O'Hara, who's helping to oversee the program, says having new employees help people look for housing makes a big difference. “It makes no sense to put someone in drug treatment, and then when they're finished, put them on the streets again," she says.

Back in the courtroom on June 13, Long wasn’t the only one being sentenced. Shaelyn Gonzales, who had been throwing rocks at Powers, received eight years in prison. Michael Hudson was also supposed to be sentenced, but got a continuance, and is now slated to be sentenced next month.

Some of the suspects’ friends, a few not wearing shoes, filled a row near the back of the room and sat mostly quiet, but one woman let out a chuckle during the prosecution’s remarks. When that happened, prosecutor Johanna Schonfield spun around to give the crowd some advice.

“This could be you,” Schonfield said. “And Mr. Powers could have been any of you, too. There is help out there. We’re trying to make a difference in the community, so don’t let this become you.”

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