District Attorney Todd Spitzer, who oversees the vast majority of criminal prosecutions in Orange County, is publicly calling on his colleagues to overhaul how they deal with drug use and mental illness – offering treatment instead of jail and criminal charges.

Spitzer specifically argues people arrested for drug use or mental illness should have the option of treatment instead of jail.

In an interview Friday, the DA told Voice of OC he wants to start with cases where people are under the influence of drugs – which he estimated at up to thousands of cases a year – though the timeline is unclear.

“I don’t believe that we should be sending mentally ill people to jail. We should be, immediately upon arrest, evaluating them and triaging them and putting them into programs,” Spitzer said in a radio interview earlier that day on NPR affiliate KPCC.

“Those who are addicted to drugs should not be spending time in jail – where they’re not getting any help, and their issue only becomes worse, and they become a convict. And then their chances of social rehabilitation and responsibility are diminished. So we are not investing at the front end,” he added.

In a follow up interview with Voice of OC that day, Spitzer said he wants to start by offering treatment at the county’s new Be Well mental health campus as an alternative to filing charges and jail time – as long as people stick with the program.

“I’d really like to integrate Be Well and take individuals who are under the influence and start agreeing not to file criminal charges if they agree to go in and complete treatment,” Spitzer said.

“I want them off drugs. I want them turning their lives around and being productive. That would be a huge change in our county,” he added.

His call for an overhaul is generating a welcome response from advocates, though they say it needs to be backed up with actual action – which they say there’s no signs of yet.

“We are thrilled to hear the District Attorney’s office agrees that people with disabilities need access to medical services, not jail,” said Brooke Weitzman, a leading attorney who represents many of the poorest OC residents prosecuted for drug use and mental illness.

“As Todd Spitzer and Sheriff Barnes have recently suggested, police and jails are not appropriate responses to medical needs,” she added.

“We look forward to seeing these elected leaders back their words with their actions and support community requests to stop the construction of the mental health jail in Irvine, promote the new system of care through Be Well, and direct funding to housing and medical response teams.”

She called on Spitzer to back up his words with a series of actions, like calling for the halting of construction of the mental health treatment jail at Musick and dismissing misdemeanor criminal cases when people prove they’re enrolled in services like shelters and treatment programs.

Asked about those requests, Spitzer said Monday he was too busy to respond because he was observing a court hearing. He previously said he has a team of staff that has started to look at reforms, though he didn’t have a timeline for when changes would happen.

“We are doing an analysis,” said Spitzer’s spokeswoman, Kimberly Edds. “But that takes time.”

There’s no sign the DA’s office is actually moving anytime soon to dismiss drug use cases for people who accept treatment, Weitzman said.

“Nope. I have a few people who have very old possession or paraphernalia charges and are in shelter or [Project Toolbelt county service] programs now,” said Weitzman, who represents homeless people.

“Dropping charges for anyone enrolled in one of those would be a great start. [Criminal charges] are a huge barrier to housing.”

Spitzer had no response when asked if he’s looked at starting with existing treatment centers and cases, rather than waiting for the Be Well mental health campus before getting started.

Spitzer’s critics say he grandstands to get media attention, without actually following up his words with meaningful actions. Such criticisms were on display at a news conference Monday morning led by former LA County District Attorney Gil Garcetti, as well as Paul Wilson, whose wife Christy was killed in Orange County’s deadliest mass shooting.

Asked about these critiques, Spitzer called the criticisms “idiotic.”

Orange County’s largest law enforcement union said it hadn’t heard of Spitzer’s call for reforms until a Voice of OC reporter contacted them. Nevertheless, the union’s leaders said they welcome more treatment options, while opposing any dropping of violence charges.

“This is the first time we are hearing of the District Attorney’s plan and are unfamiliar with the specifics,” the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs, which represents deputies as well as DA investigators, said in a statement.

Union officials said they agree “that there needs to be more options available for individuals who are struggling with mental illness or drug addiction. We support any treatment that can benefit someone who has been arrested and lead to rehabilitation.”

“However, we do not agree that those who commit a crime, especially a violent crime, should have their charges dismissed,” the union added. “Mental illness or drug addiction is not an excuse to commit crimes or act in a violent and dangerous manner and victimize our community.”

Voice of OC reached out for comment from two of the county’s top police leaders, Sheriff Don Barnes and the Orange County police chiefs’ association.

Both are calling for more treatment options, as alternatives to jail, for people with addiction and mental health issues.

“The Orange County Chiefs’ of Police & Sheriff’s Association (OCCPSA) stands committed and supportive for reasonable alternatives to jail sentences for low level offenders who suffer from addiction and/or mental illness,” the association said in a statement to Voice of OC.

“We too believe there needs to be more robust programs to deal with these issues.  Police leaders in Orange County have empathy for those suffering from these diseases and their families,” said the statement, which was provided by the group’s president, Placentia Police Chief Darin Lenyi.

Barnes didn’t provide comment by deadline, though his spokeswoman noted the sheriff has publicly called for more treatment options.

“Law enforcement should not be the strategy or the first face of government these individuals encounter or rely upon for help,” Barnes told a presidential commission last year.

“Law enforcement should be the last form of government these people encounter, and only when the intervention efforts have failed resulting in a criminal violation of law

County supervisors Doug Chaffee and Don Wagner are joining those calls for more treatment options instead of jail – as are some of the leading candidates for the vacant supervisors’ seat.

“I fully support the idea,” Chaffee told Voice of OC, noting that multiple service providers are available, not just the Be Well campus that is barely starting operations.

“I think this is a step in the right direction. There are a lot of details to work out, however,” said Wagner.

“Some drug use and mental illnesses manifest themselves in criminal conduct, which needs to be addressed. We should get help to the people who need and want it but not allow those who don’t to game the system.”

John Moorlach, a former county supervisor now running in the 2nd District supervisors’ election, agreed the mental health approach needs to be reformed. But he said Spitzer’s effort is “premature” given that the actual services are still a long ways away from being available at the Be Well campus.

“Spitzer may be asking more from Be Well than he can expect.  Be Well is still in its embryonic stage,” said Moorlach, who is endorsed by the county Republican Party.

Costa Mesa Mayor Katrina Foley, who is endorsed by the county Democratic Party in the supervisors’ election, said the current system is failing to stop the cycle of people going in and out of jail. She wants to see a working group of experts in law enforcement, social work, addiction treatment and city representatives work on solutions.

“It’s a lot of cheaper to have a positive system of care to help people get back into citizenship, rather than this cycle of people going in and out of jail, and back on the streets…that is far more costly,” Foley said.

Janet Rappaport, an attorney who also is running in the special supervisor’s election, said she agreed with Spitzer’s call for treatment as an option instead of jail time.

“I think that further funding of these kinds of programs and others with the same goal  would be a responsible investment by the taxpayers,” Rappaport said.

A Voice of OC reporter contacted all four county supervisors and five candidates for the vacant 2nd District supervisors’ seat and quoted everyone who commented.

County health officials say they’re in the beginning stages of trying to find ways to divert more people with mentally illness out of jails, though no timeline has been offered.

“At the request of the District Attorney (DA), the OC Health Care Agency (HCA) and Social Services Agency (SSA) are participating in a pilot diversion project to look for opportunities to keep the mentally ill out of our jail system,” said Dr. Jeffrey Nagel, who oversees the county’s mental health and drug treatment services.

“While only two meetings in, we have already focused our collective efforts to first do an assessment of available diversion efforts in OC, as well as looking at models outside OC,” said Nagel, who works as director of behavioral health services at the Orange County Health Care Agency.

“The workgroup will then develop a set of recommendations, including the potential of implementing new diversion programs. The Director of SSA and HCA and the DA met along with staff to identify staff resources for this effort,” he added.

“It is too early to spell out specific accomplishments, but this effort will assist in the ‘integration’ that the DA has expressed interest in.”

Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.

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