Long Beach program helps break vicious cycle of homelessness, substance abuse, minor crimes

Phillip Palmer Image
Wednesday, April 28, 2021
Program breaks homelessness cycle by giving treatment, not jail time
This program in Long Beach helps people avoid repeat minor offenses, provides treatment instead of jail time and gives participants a chance to get off the streets.

LONG BEACH (KABC) -- Many factors cause homelessness. For some, getting off the streets requires breaking a cycle of minor criminal offenses and frequent court dates tied to mental illness and substance abuse.

Javier knows that first hand. But he has been off the streets and sober for 30 days thanks in part to the Priority Access Diversion (PAD) program at the Long Beach City Prosecutor's Office.

"Many of the people that we are helping are suffering from addiction, they're suffering from mental illness, they're not necessarily hardened criminals and the criminal justice system is not very well prepared to assist them," said Long Beach City Prosecutor Doug Haubert.

In expanding a pilot program that began in 2017, the City Prosecutor's Office now reviews all misdemeanor cases in Long Beach like trespassing or vandalism, and if there's evidence the person has a mental health condition or substance abuse disorder, the case is referred to PAD. In some instances, the case goes to PAD before the case is actually filed in court.

"It's no surprise to anyone that putting someone in jail and throwing away the key isn't helping anyone. It's not helping that person it's not helping society as a whole. And so now we're all collaborating together, to try to get people help so that they don't come back into my courtrooms," said Laura Reimer, deputy city prosecutor in Long Beach and coordinator of the PAD program.

Avoiding repeat, minor offenses and providing treatment instead of jail time and court appearances, provides a chance for participants to get off the streets. And a critical piece of the puzzle is the partnership with the L.A. Centers for Alcohol and Drug Abuse (LA CADA), which not only provides outpatient counseling, but also helps secure housing. In many cases, it even provides transportation directly from the courthouse, instead of watching someone return to the streets.

"If we can assist in getting them to a place where they don't need the drugs, they don't need the alcohol, then you know, all of their court cases are knocked out, then we're at a better place, because now we can apply for a job," says Amber Perez-Riggins, the community services coordinator for LA CADA.

PAD is 100% voluntary, but there can be harsh legal consequences if the defendant doesn't complete the program, which is prosecutor driven and initiated.

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"I think it's important for prosecutors to be involved in the starting of the program and the running of the program to make sure that public safety is also a kept add-up as a priority in addition to helping people recover," Haubert says.

And Perez-Riggins agrees: "It just makes everything that much easier. So some people don't know that we're here. Most of the clients in court don't know that we exist."

For Javier, he now knows something needed to change before he could get off the streets and out of the court room.

"I didn't know that about the proper help. I really didn't know much about it. Until I got arrested. And I came into this program. But other than that, if I would have stayed back out, I would've been going back to the same thing," he said.

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