By Kent Gray
Triplicate staff writer
They are occasional partygoers and permanent barroom fixtures. They range from drunk drivers to drunks passed out on park benches. In every category, arrests for public intoxication in Del Norte County are surpassing those in other California communities.
Using a three-year average, Del Norte County has the third-highest risk of drug and alcohol abuse per capita among all California counties, according to the California Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs.
"I worked for a department in Southern California and I don't remember the problem being as bad there as it is here," said Crescent City Police Chief Bob West. "I can tell you this, our arrests for public intoxication far exceed our arrests than for any other crimes."
Using the three-year average between 1997 and 1999, Del Norte recorded 22.1 arrests per 1,000 people versus a 6.2 average rate per 1,000 statewide for public intoxication. Del Norte has the third-highest arrest rate for this category. Arrests for driving under the influence are 14.8 in Del Norte versus 8.7 statewide.
Local law enforcement agencies agree that dealing with the problem of general drunkenness is expensive, time-consuming and is an underlying foundation for other societal problems.
In 2001, Crescent City police officers made 303 arrests for public intoxication. Most of these cases are repeat offenders who travel through a revolving door ¬Ė both at the Del Norte County jail and in the county courthouse.
"Added to that is often the individual charged with public intoxication is also arrested for crimes like vandalism, petty theft and spousal abuse," West said.
District Attorney Robert Drossel agreed it is the associated crimes that preoccupy his office.
"It does creep into greater crimes, that much we know," Drossel said. "It is sometimes the catapult for other events and we'll have arrests for drunk driving, thefts and assaults. We see intoxication as quite prevalent in association with violent crime."
West said it's difficult to estimate how many repeat offenders are arrested in Crescent City because the frequency varies.
"There's about a dozen that pass through on a constant basis and maybe another dozen or so that are still pretty frequent," said West. "Most of the time our officers run across them during patrols rather than their being called out for a disturbance."
"We get in one or two a night, and of course you'll get more on the Fourth of July. Every city has got them, the big cities and the small ones," said Sergeant Joe Galeoto as he conducted a tour of Holding Cell No. 2, or the drunk tank at Del Norte County jail.
Luis said it is difficult to make any headway against the problem.
"How are you going to legislatively stop these people from having an addiction?" said Luis. "Besides that, we don't have the facilities to keep them all at the jail. They go through six hours of detox and that's it. We have to let them out and they're going to get drunk again."
Treatment for alcoholism in Del Norte is lower than the state average, at a rate of 5.1 versus 8.7 statewide. Officials place some of the blame for this on a lack of facilities.
"We need a (detoxification) center, we really do, because we don't have that. But then again, many of them would be back out on the street again. It's a sickness for some of them," Galeoto said.
Because public intoxication is perceived as "a victimless non-violent crime," it doesn't get the same attention from the courts when more serious crimes are on the calendar, Luis said.
Judge William Follett, who handles the bulk of the cases, said many offenders are not charged on the first offense.
"It's usually the second time when I see them," Follett said. "The big problem isn't the guy out partying and gets busted because he'll probably never get arrested again. As far as sentencing, I have no set guidelines. It is all based on the individuals and the facts of the case."
Follett said his sentences vary between probation, fines, community service and jail time. Surprisingly, some offenders opt for the latter.
"Some people say they aren't going to stop no matter what and ask for jail time because that way they won't have to go to (Alcoholics Anonymous) meetings," Follett said. "The real problem is a dual diagnosis, when there is a mental health problem involved as well ... it's a difficult problem."
One solution may be on the horizon. Luis said he is trying to get a program up and running that will be aimed at a specific segment of the population.
"Since (Sheriff Jim) Maready took office, I have been tracking this demographically both in the county and in the jail," Luis said. "I noticed that there was a disproportionate amount of Native Americans in custody for public intoxication."
Luis contacted United Indian Health and the two are hoping to receive funding to begin a program for Native Americans.
"I realize this is just one portion of the population, but it's a start," said Luis. "We're just starting to collect the data and we're looking where we would pinpoint the program, say at counseling."