What do you do with people who are repeatedly failed by social services and the legal system?
The past 28 years of Angel’s* life are laid out in court files—dozens of them—starting with a drug arrest in March 1994, when he was 19 years old. Now 47, Angel has been arrested by San Diego County law enforcement more than 160 times—including 21 times since May 2021—mostly for misdemeanor drug possession.
According to available records and an email interview with his sister, Angel has suffered from schizophrenia and drug addiction since he was a teen. During one jail stay, he was involuntarily medicated, per a judge’s order.
The sheer number of Angel’s interactions with the criminal justice system suggests both a man unable to overcome his mental health struggles and a set of institutions that has singularly failed to help him do so. Over and over again, prosecutors, judges, and jailers have reached for the same blunt tools, even though those tools have so clearly done nothing to disrupt the pattern of Angel’s life.
The Appeal made multiple attempts to locate Angel while this story was being reported, including by contacting family members and homeless-outreach workers and by looking out for new arrest records. Every attempt was unsuccessful—a testament to how thoroughly the system can lose track of vulnerable people.
Neil Besse, a deputy public defender in San Diego who, until recently, headed up the office’s mental health diversion unit (but has not represented Angel) described Angel as “falling through cracks like few others.”
Even the San Diego City Attorney’s office admits that continually prosecuting Angel hasn’t proved effective.
“It is clear that [Angel] needs treatment services and that repeated booking into jail will not provide him the support he needs to heal and get out of the criminal justice system,” Hilary Nemchik, then a spokeswoman for the office, wrote in an email to The Appeal late last year.
The average daily population of San Diego County jails fell during the pandemic, from 5,630 in 2019 to just under 4,000 at last count. As San Diego officials explore ways to further reduce the population, a question lingers: What do you do with people like Angel, who are repeatedly failed by social services and the legal system, and who account for a disproportionate number of the incarcerated population?
“A criminal legal system that is responding to mental illness and substance use by arresting someone dozens of times per year for years on end is neither humane nor effective,” Aaron Littman, a clinical teaching fellow at UCLA School of Law, said. “Jailing someone over and over is expensive, and that money could doubtless be better spent on providing supportive, community-based services.”
Court records provide a window into the mounting futility of the cycle of arrests and re-arrests that has marked Angel’s life. Minutes from hearings suggest a system and defendant that have grown weary of each other. “[Defendant] refused to get on the bus” appears multiple times in case files, referring to the bus that transports prisoners from jail to court for scheduled hearings.
Angel’s sister, Sandra, said in an email that her mother, who died in 2018, had searched many times over the years for a treatment program that would accept Angel. When those efforts failed, she would try to find him a place to sleep at a shelter or motel because he was often too volatile to stay with her.
“She always worried about him,” Sandra said.
In San Diego, 35 percent of people with a history of substance abuse who are arrested for a felony and 42 percent who are arrested for a misdemeanor also have a diagnosed mental illness, according to a recent study by the San Diego Association of Governments, a regional planning and policymaking agency. These individuals are more likely to experience housing instability, making treatment difficult.
It seems there were some attempts to grapple with Angel’s mental illness early on. In July 1999, for instance, Angel, then 24 years old, agreed to plead guilty to two felonies—stalking and assault with a deadly weapon—in exchange for the possibility that the judge would recommend he be sent to a state psychiatric hospital for treatment instead of to prison.
“I make no commitments, but I will consider whether to make the recommendation,” San Diego Superior Court Judge Gale Kaneshiro told Angel, according to a transcript of his sentencing hearing.
“That’s what I would like for you to do for me,” Angel responded, “so I can get better.”
Yet, according to court records, there is no indication that Angel was ever sent to a state psychiatric hospital or, aside from being involuntarily medicated during a jail stay, that he has ever received any kind of inpatient treatment. Instead, he has repeatedly been sent to state prison.
Records show that when Angel was offered probation in exchange for participating in a treatment program, he had difficulty following the rules. Multiple case files include warrants for his arrest because he failed to show up to court. At one point, he was arrested for not showing up to get the results of a medical test. He has been kicked out of group homes and, according to recent court records, is currently homeless.
Angel “has demonstrated that he is unable to remain law abiding,” one probation report says, referring to an incident in 2012 in which Angel attacked his mother. The report does say that the probation officer referred Angel to one of San Diego County”s largest mental health services programs, but that he was rejected beause he was deemed a safety risk. In 2014, California voters passed Prop. 47, which reduced low-level felonies, including most cases of simple drug possession, to misdemeanors. Since nearly all his crimes were for drug possession, Angel got caught up in what Besse describes as a “culture of misdemeanors,” in which cases move quickly through the court, leaving little time for judges and attorneys to assess a defendant’s needs.
Angel has a history of addiction to meth, which can exacerbate mental illness, making him a difficult client.
“It takes the experienced attorneys not days but weeks, and sometimes months, for a client to really get thinking clearly after using meth for any sustained period of time,” Besse said. “The methamphetamine and the compressed misdemeanor timetables, they just don’t lend themselves to that.”
Besse described the criminal legal system as being compartmentalized and “out of sync with itself.” He said that the system’s inability to link Angel with the services he needs after arresting him was clear evidence of its failings.
“If they’re not reaching [Angel] on any of the bookings, that raises policy-implementation questions,” he said. “Like, are we going to use the criminal system or not use the criminal system? If we’re going to use it, let’s all work together and use it wisely. If we’re not going to use it, then let’s get the message all the way down to the boots on the ground and tell them to take [arrestees] to a hospital, take them to a sobering center, or don’t even do anything, you know?”
Angel has also found himself caught in a particularly grim trap: some of the very programs that might help stop his cycle of arrests are closed to him precisely because of those arrests.
“Our prosecutors attempted to engage him in various diversion programs, but due to his criminal history … he did not meet eligibility requirements,” Nemchik, the San Diego City Attorney’s spokeswoman, wrote. “Eligibility criteria for these programs is determined by the providers and designed to protect their employees, other participants, and the public.”
When The Appeal reached out to Nemchik in December, she said the City Attorney’s office had referred Angel to the county’s Behavioral Health Services Department. But the City Attorney also continues to prosecute him. While The Appeal waited nearly four months for a judge to grant access to Angel’s 2012 probation report—his most recent—he was arrested another five times and had two new cases filed against him.
Again, both new case files include warrants because Angel did not show up to his arraignments.
Last October, Terra Lawson-Remer, a member of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors, whose election in November 2020 gave the board a Democratic majority, introduced a proposal aimed at identifying gaps in county services, such as drug and mental health treatment, that might help keep people like Angel from cycling through jail.
The proposal, which was passed unanimously by the board, was the first of its kind for California’s second largest county.
In a memo to the board, Lawson-Remer cited a recent report by the American Addiction Centers, which found that it costs $81,000 a year to incarcerate someone with mental illness but only $32,000 a year to provide that person with housing and social services.
“People keep cycling through the system, and it’s not making them better, right? It’s not solving the problem and it’s costing taxpayers a ton of money,” she told The Appeal.
She hopes the study will help explain why existing programs aren’t reaching the most difficult cases. The goal is to have a final report in hand by February 2023 along with a five-year plan for adding services and programs.
“The study is meant to address—to really identify—the gaps in our services,” she said. “And there are many of them, right? I’ve heard this from providers, I’ve heard this from judges, I’ve heard this from police, I’ve heard this from the DA, the public defender. Everyone’s agreed that we do not have the right type of services—and enough of them—and a sufficient infrastructure to meet the need.”
“We’re not building a rocket ship,” Lawson-Remer said. “I mean, it’s a hard problem to solve, but it’s not something we don’t understand or haven’t grappled with before. It’s just that there hasn’t been political will or interest to tackle it, because it’s easier to sweep it under the rug.”
Jerry Hall, a behavioral health advocate and the founder of Civic Mapping, which analyzes data related to behavioral health and the criminal legal system, applauded Lawson-Remer’s proposal.
“I would argue that any day of the week, the lack of data is the No. 1 problem we’re all facing,” he said. “If we had the data, we could hold people accountable.”
He cautioned that interventions for people like Angel, who have been neglected by the system for decades, will cost money before they save money.
“The point is to help the man, it isn’t about the money,” he said.
Will Matthews, spokesman for the criminal justice reform group Californians for Safety and Justice—which authored Prop. 47—also applauded Lawson-Remer’s proposal. He said California’s history of using incarceration to solve societal issues has created the problems of addiction, homelessness and jail churn that San Diego and other counties are grappling with.
“We have never committed to funding a treatment and prevention infrastructure,” he said. “We have committed to a strategy that defaulted to locking people up—and we know that that didn’t work, because at the height of mass incarceration in California, the recidivism rate was around 70 percent. We don’t want to go back to those days.”
* Editor’s Note: Because we could not speak directly to Angel for this story, The Appeal is only using his first name to protect his privacy.