Contra Costa DA stops charging minor drug cases

Low-level drug offenders will no longer be prosecuted in Contra Costa County, District Attorney Diana Becton said Thursday.

"They take up a tremendous amount of resources," Becton said. The priority should be charging suspects accused of more serious offenses, she said.

"We also have to focus not only on the violent crimes but we also have to focus on these entry points into our criminal justice system," said Becton, a former Superior Court judge.

This means first-time, non-violent offenders jailed only for a low-level narcotics crime won't go to court. Instead, they'll be referred to social services and health care agencies so they can be treated.

"Without treatment, without accountability at these early stages, we increase our footprint towards incarceration," the district attorney said.

Becton is among a group of progressive California DAs focused on reforming the criminal justice system. They say minor drug cases have clogged court dockets.

In Santa Clara County, DA Jeff Rosen has also stopped filing charges on all but the most serious drug cases.

"I see a trend in treating drug use as a health issue rather than a criminal, legal issue," said Theshia Naidoo, managing legal director for the Drug Policy Alliance.

She said these DAs are doing the right thing by "exercising their discretion in a way that really diverts people out of the system and allows them to have a more meaningful life."

But not all law enforcement officials  agree with this approach.

"I'm still old-fashioned and believe that the role of the district attorney is not to create the law," said San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe. 

Wagstaffe said he will still continue to prosecute minor drug cases, even if those are relatively rare. He said he, too, supports treatment

"We're still a believer that the criminal justice system is an avenue to try and bring this about,' he said.

Contra Costa County Sheriff David Livingston said he wasn't notified about Becton's policy change until she notified the public at large.

In a statement, the sheriff said, "I support treatment when it works. But every citizen who has had their car broken into, their home burglarized or property stolen should know the vast majority of those crimes are committed by so-called 'low-level' drug offenders. I worry more about the victims than I do about the criminals."