Pubdate: Wed, 18 May 2016
Source: Press Democrat, The (Santa Rosa, CA)
Copyright: 2016 The Press Democrat
Author: Glenda Anderson


A unique Mendocino County program that reduces defendants' felony 
marijuana charges to misdemeanors in exchange for restitution 
payments has succeeded in reducing court backlogs, jail crowding and 
law enforcement costs, according to a recently released Mendocino 
County grand jury report, which recommended it continue.

But the report also reiterated concerns about whether the 
controversial five-year-old program provides equal justice.

District Attorney David Eyster's 11470.2 Program - named for the 
state Health and Safety Code on which it is based - had raised $7.5 
million for Mendocino County law enforcement agencies by March, of 
which $7 million went to the Sheriff's Office, a rate of more than 
$100,000 a month in revenue, according to the report.

Those numbers are fueling critics' complaints that the program is 
"extortion" of marijuana defendants and they've given it names like 
"pay to play" and "Mendo Shakedown."

Released Friday, the grand jury report states that defendants without 
enough money to pay may not be able to participate. The D.A.'s office 
told the grand jury that efforts are made to accommodate the truly 
indigent. No records documenting such efforts were provided, 
according to the report.

The fees are based on the amount of marijuana seized. Defendants 
seeking the plea deal are charged $50 per plant, $500 per pound of 
processed marijuana and $100 per pound of shake. The average 
misdemeanor plea deal costs $14,435, with some cases generating 
closer to $100,000.

The grand jury initiated its investigation to determine the validity 
of concerns expressed by citizens and some public officials, 
including Mendocino County Superior Court Judge Clay Brennan, who 
blasted the program in court and refused to sign off on a plea 
agreement. Eyster responded by dismissing the felony case and 
refiling the marijuana charges as misdemeanors.

None of the other Mendocino County Superior Court judges has objected 
to the plea agreements, according to the report.

Despite its financial success, no other District Attorney's Office in 
the state has adopted similar programs, the report states.

Eyster created the program in 2011, when the District Attorney's 
Office faced a backlog of 500 open felony cases involving marijuana, 
the report noted. At the time, it took an average of 15 months to 
resolve a marijuana-related case, diverting resources away from more 
serious crimes, according to the report.

More than 500 restitution agreements have been approved since the 
inception of the program, the report said. Marijuana cases are now 
resolved in 120 days, on average, from arraignment to disposition. 
The District Attorney's Office reports that the recidivism rate for 
people who participate in the program is 10 percent, compared to the 
overall recidivism rate of 40 percent for all convicted defendants in 
the county.

"Furthermore, the program has resulted in reducing jail crowding, 
workload for Probation, and court backlog," the grand jury report stated.

The report notes no appellate court has ruled against the program. 
Santa Rosa attorney Mark Clausen has a pending case in Mendocino 
County Superior Court challenging what he calls the "sale of justice 
in criminal cases."

In 2013, the U.S. Attorney's Office sought information from the 
Mendocino County Auditor-Controller's office on financial 
transactions connected to marijuana-related cases. A November 2013 
subpoena, leaked to The Press Democrat, sought "any and all documents 
in your custody or control relative to the financial transactions" of 
the 11470.2 Program, in addition to other programs generating money 
for the county from marijuana-related cases. A U.S. Attorney's Office 
spokesman would neither confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation.

District Attorney's Office spokesman Mike Geniella said his 
department has never been contacted by any federal agency about the 
program. He said Eyster would address specifics of the county grand 
jury report at a later time. He noted the report was mostly positive.

"We've had no doubt the innovative five-year program is on solid 
legal ground," Geniella said.
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