A bill in the Legislature would make it easier for U.S. military troops and veterans to avoid conviction on misdemeanor DUI offenses by completing a diversion program designed to help troops with emotional problems.
Active-duty service members and vets who had driven under the influence of alcohol, drugs and other substances would receive treatment sooner.
Senate Bill 725 gained unanimous support in the Senate. The full Assembly could vote on the legislation as early as this week.
To qualify, veterans must have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, military sexual trauma or other conditions that appear on a short list.
This diversion program has been increasingly adopted nationwide because thousands of U.S. troops return home from Iraq and Afghanistan with emotional problems that lead to bad decisions.
In veterans treatment court, qualified candidates are found guilty but their convictions are then dismissed if they complete a counseling program. That program often consists of two to three years of supervised care that includes some residential treatment. Basically, participants do their time in treatment instead of jail.
The San Diego County vet-court program had 21 graduates in the past 18 months. Roughly a third of its cases involved DUIs.
The recidivism rate is about 20 percent, much lower than the general jail population's rate at about 70 percent.
In 2014, California passed legislation that enabled qualifying participants to undergo treatment without entering a guilty plea.
This program reduced court and jail costs and spared them military punishment that includes a less-than-honorable discharge.
Since DUI wasn't specifically mentioned, courts around the state made different determinations as to whether a person charged with a DUI can be eligible for diversion treatment.
The issue is now before the California Supreme Court. The question at hand is whether the revamped version of the program should explicitly cover DUI.
In the "yes" column are about 10 veterans organizations, including the California chapters of the American Legion and AMVETS, and the American Civil Liberties Union.
With regard to DUI, "We want to get those people into treatment as early as possible. We don't want them going out jeopardizing future victims," said Jude Litzenberger, executive director of the California Veterans Legal Task Force in San Diego.
"Everybody on both sides of this thing is pro public safety," said Litzenberger, a retired Navy officer.
An influential voice in this controversy is San Diego County Superior Court Judge Roger Krauel, who testified in support of SB 725 on Tuesday in Sacramento.
Krauel, a retired Army officer, helped launch the San Diego region's first veterans court. He now presides over the diversion program in El Cajon and testified on Tuesday that San Diego County has had no repeat offenders among its diversion graduates.
Military veterans can get into treatment as much as a year earlier in the no-conviction diversion program, compared to the post-conviction treatment court method, Krauel said in an interview with The San Diego Union-Tribune this week.
Diversion also can save a service member's honorable duty status. If not, a veteran who had been kicked out of the military often loses financial and medical benefits from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
"Then we've lost a warrior who protects us," Krauel said. "And he'd have trouble participating (in treatment) if he couldn't get into the VA, because not too many folks who just lost their military job are going to have the money for private counseling."
But the California District Attorneys Association, in addition to the San Diego County District Attorney's Office, opposes expansion of the diversion program to include DUI cases.
"This creates potential for a dangerous cycle of diversion that jeopardizes the safety of our streets and highways," the state association said in a letter.
Critics of SB 725 said the safer remedy is the post-conviction veterans treatment court. They cite anecdotal evidence of at least one DUI offender getting repeat passes in Santa Barbara County.
"With diversion, there is no guilty plea. There's no conviction. There's no limit to the amount of DUI offenses that one person can be diverted for," said Kennedy of the San Diego District Attorney's Office. "And there's no statutory structure for treatment that guarantees we'll get some type of effective treatment."
Kennedy added that he has seen active-duty troops get convicted and go through the veterans court process, even with felony cases, and keep their military careers intact.
Meanwhile, Litzenberger and other backers of SB 725 said the diversion route contains safeguards against repeat DUI offenders.
A judge has to approve each application for diversion, they note. Also, the state Department of Motor Vehicles has a separate administrative process that can include revoking a driver's license after a DUI. The DMV record follows you and wouldn't be affected by the proposed bill, said backers of the measure.
"There will be no endless diversions," said the bill's author, State Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, a Democrat who represents Santa Barbara and Ventura.
The debate has ramifications for San Diego County, which is home to an estimated 38,000 veterans from the post-9/11 era. Of those, based on U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs research cited in a recent military justice report, as many as 6,700 may end up charged with a crime.