SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- California officials are experimenting with a new diversion program for criminals that includes allowing victims to directly confront their offenders.
The budget that took effect July 1 includes $5 million to fund the program for five years in a county with a history of high crime, although it has been tried elsewhere and is more frequently used with juvenile offenders.
The California program is for offenders of any age. It will pair victims and offenders before they are convicted, and offenders who complete the program can avoid having a criminal record.
Proponents said Monday that what are known as restorative justice programs can help survivors heal, while helping offenders avoid committing new crimes in part because they don't face the stigma of a criminal conviction.
"The goal of restorative justice is to give victims a chance to receive true justice in a much more personal way than our current system allows," said Democratic state Sen. Steve Glazer of Orinda, who sought the money. "At the same time, the program gives offenders a chance to make amends directly to the victim."
The state-funded program is targeting offenders who do not have extensive criminal records, but who have committed serious crimes that have a high potential for violence such as robbery, assault, home burglary or making criminal threats. Those charged with murder and sex crimes are not eligible.
San Joaquin County District Attorney Tori Verber Salazar said a more traditional county-run diversion program funded with a $1 million federal grant has graduated 76 offenders in the last 3½ years, only three of whom have since committed new crimes.
"Currently there are limited opportunities for victims to engage in the criminal justice system other than at the end, when they make a victim impact statement," she said. "This is going to put power and tools and an opportunity to heal back in the hands of our victims."
The offender, victim and members of community groups, along with law enforcement and defense attorneys, must agree on a plan that will satisfy the survivor and community while helping the criminal avoid commit future crimes. That can include substance abuse treatment, counseling, education and job preparation.
Victims can demand restitution for expenses like medical bills or time lost from work, but some just want a letter or statement of apology, said Ken Puckett, the county's chief deputy district attorney. The offender will face a suspended prison or jail sentence that can be reinstated unless they complete the program.
An independent evaluation will track how many graduates commit new crimes and whether the program satisfies victims.
Glazer sought the money after meeting at San Quentin State Prison with Adnan Khan, the co-founder and co-executive director of Re:store Justice who was released earlier this year after serving 16 years of a life murder sentence.
"This will provide an opportunity for people to truly understand why they did what they did, so then they can be accountable, and so then they can continue making amends," Khan said.