August 20, 2014
Letter from Honorable George A. Miram, Superior Court Judge

Revolving Door

The revolving door of incarceration for recidivist drug and alcohol law-offenders once offered little hope of resolving the issue of substance abuse and related crimes. While research has shown that substance abuse treatment is effective for maintaining sobriety, without proper life skills and educational training, there is little hope for a return to a productive lifestyle.

In August, the Court - in collaboration with the Sheriff's Department, Probation Department, District Attorney's Office, and Private Defender's Office - inaugurated a new alternative-sentencing program called Bridges Day Treatment. Bridges is the first alternative-to-incarceration program of its kind in California in terms of the breadth of the program's contents and its participants' cycle of offending. The primary goal of the program is to reduce recidivism by attacking the root causes of alcohol and substance abuse related crime. The root causes have been identified by the collaborators as joblessness, illiteracy, poor impulse control, and other personal issues.

Lost Lives

The myriad needs of substance abusers who commit petty crimes to support their addictions were once overlooked by the criminal justice system. The cycle of drug/alcohol abuse and crime creates a destructive force that affects more than the user. Family members of the user are also caught in the downward spiral of addiction. The entire familial structure can be destroyed by addiction. The financial and psychological effects on the addict's significant others, children and parents are disastrous. Addiction is also hereditary: children of a substance abuser often become users themselves.

A larger population is affected as well: the community. The addict's criminal acts impose a financial burden upon the community through costs of prosecution, defense and incarceration. Moreover, the addict typically is not a contributing member to society and does not pay taxes. There is also a psychological impact on the community that is far worse than financial loss: the cost of victimization is both financially and emotionally damaging. Bridges works toward restoring the lives of substance abusers, thus relieving the criminal justice system and benefitting the larger community.

Participants

The Bridges' participants are non-violent offenders with histories of substance abuse. Judges, Private Defenders and probation staff single out prospective participants. The selection process is comprehensive: defendants wanting to participate are subject to multiple reviews and background checks. Those with any violent convictions or a significant degree of denial are not eligible.

Once sentenced, jail time is suspended, jail credits are waived and the defendants are admitted into the program. The terms of probation are strict. Participants must abstain from drug and alcohol use, attend day treatment and educational classes, obey all laws and conditions of probation, and abide by curfew restrictions.

While in the program, participants are randomly screened for substance use two to three times per week. Curfew compliance checks are also performed by probation at night. Bridges participants are unemployed, and often homeless. Curfew restrictions are lifted when participants gain employment. Homeless participants may gain access to housing through the Service League's FAR program.

We encourage the Bar to play an active role in helping to identify suitable program participants. Those with clients suitable for the program should contact the Bridges Probation Officers at: 650-599-7336.

Program Components

Bridges offers a logical expansion of the Drug Court Model. It builds on the model by offering educational, vocational and cognitive training in addition to substance abuse counseling. It specifically targets those who have failed in prior rehabilitative efforts.

Participants are followed closely by each agency involved. They report to the same judge and are monitored by Probation. The program utilizes graduated rewards (e.g., curfew is lifted for night jobs) and sanctions (e.g., return to jail with no credit for time served).

At the treatment center, a staff of probation officers, treatment counselors and academic faculty provide the helping hand necessary to maintain sobriety. Peer counseling is also part of the program.

The participants have spent a majority of their lives consumed by their addictions. Basic life skills are foreign or lost to them: Bridges restores these basic life skills. Money management, social behavior, anger management, and job skills are gradually introduced as participants work towards a productive lifestyle without substance abuse.

Studies have shown that effective treatment programs must be at least 90 days in length: because of this, participants' original jail sentences must be for 90 days or longer. As everyone involved has different needs, there is no set length of program participation. Rather, on a case-by-case basis, participants are reviewed and, when ready, are released from the program.

Coordinated effort

This program was the brainchild of Judges George Miram, Mark Forcum, Marta Diaz, Carl Holm, and Margaret Kemp; Sheriff Don Horsley; District Attorney James Fox; Chief Probation Officer Gene Roh; Private Defender Administrator John McInereny; and representatives from Sequoia Adult School and the San Mateo County Department of Education. Numerous agencies and County departments contributed their time and energies as well.

Planning and implementation

A year in the development, Bridges addresses the numerous factors that perpetuate the addiction and crime cycle. Concerned with the destructive impact of substance abuse and crime, the Bridges' committee worked to create this post-sentencing program.

At the beginning of August 1999, the first defendants were sentenced into Bridges. The defendants accepted the terms of their release from custody. Among those terms is one that tests their determination to succeed: failure in the program results in a return to jail for the entire length of their original sentence with no credit for time served in the program.

Little start-up cost

Surprisingly little money has been used to implement the program. Each agency has devoted time to finding available resources to support Bridges in its infancy. Computers and software for the educational component were donated and installed by the Court's Technology Division. The chairs came from the renovation of the jury assembly rooms. Probation posted two of their officers at the program facility. ADA funding offsets the cost of the teachers.

The facility itself is housed in a rarely-used conference room at the women's jail. The kitchen staff at the jail provides lunch. Future plans include applying for Federal Grant monies to fund and expand the program.

Judicial Role

The relationship between the Bridges judges and the participants is an important one. The participants report to their judge within 30 days for a status update. Subsequent court appearances are scheduled on an individual basis. Judges have also dropped by, unannounced, to check on the participants' progress. This individual attention by judges, probation and program staff conveys to the participants that, finally, a concerted effort is being made to provide a helping hand.

Lives Restored

With treatment and restored life skills, lives once lost to crime and addiction can be restored to productivity. The resulting ripple effect will ultimately reduce recidivism, save lives, decrease victimization and slow the revolving door of drugs and crime.

© 2014 Superior Court of San Mateo County