Treatment or trial: New state law worries prosecutors in Long Beach and beyond

Long Beach’s city prosecutor and district attorneys across California have raised alarms recently about a new law that allows judges to send defendants to mental health treatment instead of standing trial and facing the punishment that comes with a criminal conviction.

The bill, AB 1810, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in June vastly expands the number of suspects who can be diverted to mental health treatment programs and possibly have their charges dismissed. If the defense shows the suspect has a mental disorder that played a part in the alleged crime, the judge has the option of ordering the suspect to complete a maximum of two years of treatment instead of facing the charges.

Prosecutors complained that the measure is far too broad and have been negotiating with Brown’s administration for weeks.

Now state lawmakers are looking to tighten the rule, which critics say could theoretically free an accused rapist or murderer after completing two years of mental health treatment.

“AB 1810 is new and has some obvious flaws,” said Long Beach City Prosecutor Doug Haubert. “It may be well-intentioned, but there will likely be some outrageous cases before people see some of the flaws and changes are made.”

Haubert pointed to one case in early June where a Long Beach man was arrested on suspicion of taking meth, masturbating in front of a woman on a street, following her to her home and putting on a condom before knocking on her door.

The man was charged with public masturbation, which could force him to register as a sex offender for at least 10 years if he were convicted. At a hearing earlier this month, the man’s public defender argued he should be diverted to mental health treatment under AB 1810 because he has schizophrenia and an addiction to meth. A prosecutor from Haubert’s office argued that he was a danger to the community and has shown in the past he would not comply with treatment.

The new law qualified the defendant for the program, but it also gave judges the power to determine if a defendant is “suitable,” meaning the defendant would respond to mental health help.

In this case, a judge nearly granted the diversion—stating it was a “close call”—but ultimately agreed with the prosecutor.

City Prosecutor Doug Haubert.

Haubert estimates the city has had a handful of diversion hearings since the law’s passing, but this particular case caught his attention because it had the potential to bypass putting the defendant on the sex-offender list.

Despite Brown signing the broad bill into law in June, his administration wants lawmakers to approve a narrower program before they adjourn for the year at month’s end. It posted the new proposal Monday night.

The proposed changes, according to the Associated Press, would specifically ban those charged with murder, rape and other sex crimes from being granted diversion and makes it clear that counties have to opt in to the program after consulting with prosecutors, defense attorneys, mental health workers and local judges.

“While nothing’s perfect, this version right now solves a majority of the issues,” said Stanislaus County District Attorney Birgit Fladager, the new president of the California District Attorneys Association.

El Dorado County District Attorney Vern Pierson, who led prosecutors’ negotiations with Brown’s administration, called the proposal “a significant improvement” over the original law.

Defense attorneys said they don’t object to excluding those charged with the most extreme crimes but that the revision goes too far.

The proposed rollback “guts mental health diversion and goes far beyond a reasonable compromise,” said Nick Stewart-Oaten, a member of the California Public Defenders Association’s legislative committee and a Los Angeles County deputy public defender. He expects more revisions as lawmakers consider the proposal.

“I’m glad that the legislature is revising what I think is a very flawed part of the policy, but I doubt that the amendments will significantly affect the core of AB 1810,” Haubert said. “I think this is just another law that will negatively affect public safety and it will not significantly change in the near future. … I think the people in Sacramento aren’t in touch with reality, with what’s going on in court.”

In Long Beach, even the proposed changes undermine the diversion programs the city already offered, Haubert said. The Priority Access Diversion (PAD) program is one that may be affected by the new law and possibly fold because of it.

PAD offers repeat offenders with drug and mental health problems the option of going into live-in treatment programs after they enter a no-contest or guilty plea. AB 1810 does not require a plea and a judge can dismiss the charges once treatment is done.

The new law discourages defendants from taking the city’s diversion offerings because the state’s deal is even sweeter, Haubert said.

“While I think many judges will deny requests for diversion under AB 1810, there’s just no telling what will be approved and what will be denied. There will be disparate outcomes because judges will apply it differently,” Haubert said.

Don Thompson of the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Valerie Osier is the Social Media & Newsletter Manager for the Long Beach Post. She started at the Post in 2018 as a breaking news reporter. She’s a Riverside native who found her love for journalism while at community college. She graduated from the Cal State Long Beach journalism program in 2017 and covered the Palos Verdes Peninsula for the Daily Breeze prior to coming to the Post. She lives in Long Beach with her husband and two cats.