The California District Attorneys Association sponsored a virtual news conference on Sept. 15 urging Gov. Gavin Newsom to refrain from signing into law a controversial bill that allows some motorists convicted of driving impaired to enroll in diversion programs instead of serving time.
Assembly Bill 3234 (AB 3234) passed votes in both chambers of the state legislature and currently sits on Newsom’s desk, waiting for his signature to become law.
A number of Southern California prosecutors, including Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer, oppose the bill because they feel it’s too lenient.
The bill makes most misdemeanor crimes, including traffic violations and nonviolent drug cases, eligible for diversion (rehabilitation) programs at the discretion of a superior court judge, even after multiple offenses and over the objection of the prosecuting attorney.
After the successful completion of the diversion program, the misdemeanor would be wiped clean from the defendant’s criminal record and “shall be deemed to have never occurred,” according to the bill.
Assemblymember Phil Ting (D-San Francisco), who authored the bill, said that “California’s criminal justice system should offer more flexibility and compassion” in support of the legislation.
“Time after time, we’ve seen that a second chance is all someone needs to turn their life around. When we do, we often get better rehabilitative and reintegration results,” Ting said in an Aug. 31 press release.
Spitzer called the bill “a license to kill” during the press conference.
“Since marijuana became legal in California, we are seeing an incredible rise in the number of DUIs where drugs are involved,” Spitzer said.
“We’ve had seven DUI deaths in Orange County in the last 60 days. That’s unacceptable. And this bill will only make it worse.”
“I believe in diversion programs, but this just goes too far,” said Amy Albano, president of the Los Angeles County Prosecutors Association.
Albano said she and many others are “concerned over the broadness of this bill.”
If a defendant gets diversion, then “they don’t have to plead guilty,” Albano said. If the defendant fails to meet the requirements of the diversion, then the case has to start over again, delaying the case and making the evidence and witnesses harder to obtain, she said.
Long Beach City Attorney Doug Haubert said the bill “provides no framework.”
“It gives no limits jurisdictionally or to the number of times someone can get diverse. It makes no sense. And it will cost lives,” he said.
Haubert said that if this bill passes, “someone could get behind the wheel, utilize AB 3234 multiple times, pick up multiple DUIs, then kill someone.”
Helen Witty, national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), said the bill “allows impaired drivers to avoid any kind of accountability and remain on the road.”
“The difference between a DUI and a DUI fatality is that … there’s no second chance for victims,” Witty said during the meeting.
Patricia Rillera, executive director of MADD in California, called the bill “appalling.” She said it’s “dangerous because it would allow drivers, whether the first time or repeated offender, to enter into diversion programs or pleadings.”
El Dorado County District Attorney Vern Pierson also decried the bill.
“As soon as the diversion takes place, it is as though the crime has never occurred—unless the person is applying for a job as a police officer in the state of California,” Pierson said.
“Under the terms of this bill, the court could not deny diversion because you’ve been previously diverted.”
If someone commits “a hate crime carrying a loaded firearm with intent to commit a felony,” he said, then that person would not be permitted to possess or buy a firearm in California for 10 years.
“If they receive diversion, they would be entitled to possess firearms … the entire time.”
He added that the bill could also cost the state millions of dollars in federal funding “that is conditioned upon impaired driving enforcement regulations.”
Opponents also questioned the standards for the diversion program, saying they’re not clearly defined in AB 3234 and could be as minimal for a DUI as attending 10 Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
In addition to the diversion clause, the bill would also amend the Elderly Parole Program by making an inmate eligible for parole if they’re 50 years old and have served a minimum of 20 years of continued incarceration.
Ting said that AB 3234 proved successful when a pilot program was tried in Los Angeles County.
“The number of jury trials decreased by more than 2,000 over a two-year period, saving the courts $12,000 per day, per trial,” his press release stated.
“Additionally, when first-time offenders charged with low-level crimes successfully completed a diversion program, recidivism rates were lower when compared to those who were prosecuted. Diversion program graduates who never reoffend also avoid having a criminal record that can prevent them from getting jobs and housing,” according to the release.
Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) added, “Diversion programs rather than jail for those charged with misdemeanors are highly effective. AB 3234 gives judges the authority to expand diversion and recognizes that those who have been incarcerated for 20 years or more have a low risk of recidivism, and thus should be eligible to be considered for parole.”
Newsom has until Sept. 30 to sign the bill into law.