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In an effort to ease overcrowding in California prisons as the spread of coronavirus still a major concern, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a new law that gives judges the discretion to place first-time misdemeanor offenders in a diversion program — including DUIs and vehicular manslaughter. It also makes changes to the elderly parole program.
Under AB 3234, reportedly, a judge in the superior court in which a misdemeanor is being prosecuted can offer misdemeanor diversion to a defendant over the objection of a prosecuting attorney, though exceptions apply. The judge can in turn continue a diverted case for a period not to exceed 24 months and order the defendant to comply with the terms, conditions, and programs the judge deems appropriate based on the defendant’s specific situation.
At the end of the diversion period, if the defendant has complied with all required terms, conditions, and programs, the judge will be required to dismiss the case against the defendant and the crime would be deemed to never have occurred.
In addition to DUIs and vehicular manslaughter, other misdemeanor cases that apply include: elder abuse, child abuse, assault, hate crimes, carrying a concealed firearm, possession of a firearm in a school zone, criminal threats, and dissuading a witness.
The court, however, may end the diversion and order resumption of the criminal proceedings if the court finds that the defendant is not complying with the terms and conditions of diversion.
Assemblymember Phil Ting (D-San Francisco), who authored the law, wrote on his website: “In these times of reflection when the fairness of our criminal justice system is front and center, we can start by offering more compassion and understanding. A second chance is sometimes all someone needs to turn their life around, and when it’s an option, we often get better rehabilitative and reintegration results. The Governor’s signature on AB 3234 is another step toward criminal justice reform.”
In terms of the elderly parole program, AB 3234 further eases prison overcrowding by making changes. According to Ting, the geriatric population can cost California up to $300,000 per year, per person in medical costs. Currently, inmates are eligible for a parole hearing if they are at least 60 years old and have served a minimum of 25 years. AB 3234 will lower the age to 50 and minimum years served to 20. Ting writes that this can be done without great risk to public safety because certain convictions are automatically excluded and fewer than 240 individuals are estimated to be eligible for this expanded review. He states that these releases will save California millions of dollars in cost.
Opponents of the law argued that AB 3234 prevents law enforcement from having an accurate account of criminal history and that it could also result in the loss of millions of dollars of federal funding for prosecutors and police.
CDAA President and El Dorado County District Attorney Vern Pierson reportedly said about the law: “Rather than being held accountable and treated appropriately, repeat DUI offenders would have a legal pathway to avoid the responsibility of their dangerous conduct… There were over 1,000 DUI deaths in 2018 alone. The failure to add DUI cases to the list of crimes excluded from diversion is gravely troubling and should alone compel a veto.”
In a similar matter, because the law applies to DUI offenses, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) also opposes AB 3234. The law places no limitations on the eligibility of repeat DUI offenders for diversion, allowing them to be eligible for diversion over and over again without being identified as a high risk chronically impaired driver.
AB 3234 went into effect on January 1, 2021.