SPECIAL REPORT: Targeting the most habitual criminal offenders in Santa Cruz County

Targeting the most habitual criminal offenders in Santa Cruz County

Led by the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office, the focused intervention program (FIT) targets the 30 most habitual offenders of disruptive and criminal behavior in Santa Cruz County.

To be eligible, you have to have been arrested at least three times in the last 90 days. Some have as many as 200 arrests in the county, dominating local police resources.

The goal of the program is to get those criminal offenders off the street and into drug, rehab and mental health programs to be a productive member of society.

Every day SCCSO sergeant William Burnett manages people who commit crimes over and over again. He surveys the street daily, checking on the people in the FIT program to make sure they’re staying off drugs and alcohol, and out of trouble.

“The people that are getting arrested, the people that are continuously scaring people out on street and tying up public resources,” FIT Supervisor sergeant William Burnett said.

Most of the people he visits are homeless, an ever growing issue in Santa Cruz that has sparked anger and debates with many who just want a solution.

Enter the FIT list: the program focused on those who repeatedly cause problems and drain law enforcement resources.

Santa Cruz county approved a half cent sales tax to fund the creation of the FIT project last November rolling solutions to the county's homeless, drug and crime epidemic into one program.

 “In the 17 years I've been in law enforcement, this is the most successful program that I've ever seen," Santa Cruz Police sergeant Carter Jones said. "It comes back to the accountability piece, because instead of just this revolving door through the county jail and the court system this is the program that’s holding people accountable.”

This is a county wide program, but about two-thirds of the people on the FIT list live or spend their time in the city of Santa Cruz, and a majority of them in downtown which puts a toll on businesses.

“You know people stealing some kind of assault stuff like that,” Sebastian Galbreath with Old School Shoes said.

“What we try to do is continually engage with them, one, so they know their behavior isn’t going to be acceptable, and we’re watching you and, two, we have the resources to give you,” Burnett said.

The new pilot program, that began earlier this year, merges law enforcement discipline with rehabilitation.

Some people on the FIT list are in jail, others are in rehab or mental health programs, and the county makes sure to have a bed for all of them to sleep on.

To graduate the program you have to spend 60 days without getting arrested. One of the graduates is Jeffrey Morris.

“Their interest. Their ability to come straight into the jail and talk to you,” Morris said.

So what happens after they graduate? The FIT supervisors continue to check up on participants, and others are added to the list.

Organizers say they hope one day the fit program will expand.

“I'd like to see it double. It's been working so successfully but the resources are a problem we only have the backing for those thirty spots, those beds in jail those resources,” Jones said.

Next year the program will be audited to evaluate its success and determine if it will continue to get funding.

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