The Perversion of Diversion: How a Well-Meaning Idea Can Go Terribly and Tragically Wrong

The Perversion of Diversion: How a Well-Meaning Idea Can Go Terribly and Tragically Wrong

By Doug Wyllie

In response to an inquiry into why a violent criminal was free—not imprisoned—at the time he fatally shot an innocent 31-year-old woman, the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office posted a tepid, timid, and terrible response. Image courtesy of Twitter.

It’s no longer evening but it’s not yet nighttime in the very northwestern corner of the Vermont Knolls section of South Los Angeles.

The atmosphere isn’t out of the ordinary.

In fact, as the time approaches for the local ten-o’clock news broadcast on this Tuesday in late May, most of the adults have probably cleared the dinner plates and most of the younger children have probably crawled into bed. There’s something a little heartwarming about that.

The neighborhood isn’t out of the ordinary.

In fact, this part of town can go almost entirely unnoticed by people simply passing through—driving north to south on Vermont Avenue, or east to west on Manchester Avenue. It’s not fancy, but it’s not downtrodden either. There are no tall buildings, but there are no vacant lots either. It’s not particularly picturesque—it’s plain, perhaps—but it’s comfortable enough for the people who call it home.

That matters—it’s home, so of course it matters.

There’s the burger joint and the pizza place and mom-and-pop Chinese and Mexican eateries with good food served hot. There’s the tire store and the bike repair shop and the coin-op laundry. There’s the unassuming looking Catholic Church—St. Michaels—which has a small TK-8 school on the property for area youth. There’s Muhammad Mosque #27, which stands catty-corner across the street from St. Michaels, welcoming Muslim worshipers to the neighborhood. There’s something a little heartwarming about it all.

That matters—it’s home, so of course it matters.

However, for the friends and family of a 31-year-old Hispanic woman named Jennifer Gomez, this place on this day at this time was neither ordinary nor heartwarming—for them, it was sheer agony, and tragedy, and heartbreaking loss.

Jennifer Gomez should be alive right now, but she isn’t.

Jennifer Gomez was shot 19 times by her neighbor. Jennifer Gomez died in her apartment—reportedly over a noise complaint—because the criminal justice system in her city failed her.

Terribly and Tragically Wrong

In November 2020, a 31-year-old man named Stefen Sutherland was charged with Assault with a Deadly Weapon (ADW) after reportedly slashing a construction worker’s neck. Law enforcement sources said at the time that Sutherland was upset over the fact that the construction worker was “making noise.”

According to Fox News, a probation official had argued that Sutherland be imprisoned for the attack—which was, essentially, an Attempted Murder—saying that Sutherland posed a risk of further violence.

However, the then-newly-elected Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón had directed his underlings on a course to create a pre-filing “diversion program” for people “who are homeless, suffer from substance use, or a mental disorder.”

A March press release proudly touted his accomplishments during his first 100 days in office, Gascón said, “I have instituted a series of reforms based on data and science that will enhance safety while reducing racial disparities and the misuse of incarceration. Our efforts to transform a dated approach that creates more crime, victims and inequities are just beginning.”

So in 2021, Sutherland was placed in a mental health diversion program.

Less than two years later, Sutherland was standing in the home of Jennifer Gomez, firing 19 rounds of ammunition into her body.

Think about that. In order to fire 19 rounds from a handgun in California, one must either possess a “high capacity” magazine deemed illegal in the state, or they must reload.

Whichever is the case in this instance, it’s heart-wrenching to even contemplate.

Fox News reporter Bill Melugin said on Twitter that he had reached out to the DA’s office to ask “how it made any sense to give mental health diversion” to Sutherland, a violent felon that had nearly killed a man over “making noise.”

The DA’s office presented a tepid, timid, and terrible response on Twitter:

“A court-appointed psychologist deemed [Sutherland] suitable for the treatment program, and our [prosecutor] agreed to the defense request for mental health diversion. The court approved the treatment plan and deemed the defendant safe for community treatment…We are saddened by the most recent allegations, and our hearts go out to the victim and those who loved them.”

Judged either objectively or subjectively, that statement seems to have little heart—in fact, it’s pretty heartless.

The Perversion of Diversion

As he was reporting on the death of Jennifer Gomez, Fox’s Melugin said on Twitter, “This is the second diversion gone wrong in LA story we’ve been tipped to recently.”

Melugin is referring to the case of 23-year-old Jade Simone Brookfield, who—as we described in detail here—was offered mental health diversion in lieu of jail time despite her penchant for repeatedly wielding a knife in unprovoked attacks on innocents.

Brookfield had stabbed multiple persons, on multiple occasions, with multiple knives, but repeatedly avoided incarceration and was walking free at the time she stabbed to death a 40-year-old father of two named Dennis Banner.

Like Jennifer Gomez, Dennis Banner died because the criminal justice system in his city failed him.

In all fairness, the problems with California’s Mental Health Diversion Program cannot all be heaped on any one person—George Gascón included—because like so many other well-meaning intentions and ideas, it has become distorted and perverted from its original objective.

The program—which has been around since its official start in 2018—aims to keep individuals with mental health issues facing convictions for low-level offenses from incarceration, which can have adverse and irreversible effects on such persons. The idea is to “decrease incarceration, improve case outcomes, decrease recidivism, and reduce reengagement with the court system.”

According to California Penal Code 1001.36, criminal defendants of either misdemeanor or felony offense who qualify for such treatment—individuals accused of things like murder, voluntary manslaughter, rape, child sexual abuse aren’t eligible—include those diagnosed with things like bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, and/or post-traumatic stress disorder. It must then be determined that the accused defendant’s mental disorder “was a significant factor in the commission of the charged offense.”

Basically, don’t put mentally incompetent people in jail with socially incompetent people.

That plan looks good on paper, but in practice, it’s gone well and truly sideways. This is partially due to the fact that nowhere on that paper is it written that a person accused of Attempted Murder or Assault with a Deadly Weapon (ADW)—as is the case with both Brookfield and Sutherland—is unqualified or unsuitable for mental health diversion.

There are—importantly and unquestionably and happily—myriad success stories authored by participants in California’s Mental Health Diversion Program. People who were once truly mentally unwell have been transformed—through their own diligent work while in the care of capable medical professionals—and reintegrated into society.

Those stories cannot be ignored, but they also cannot be used as talking points for apologists defending the failed policies and practices of progressive politicians—like George Gascón—who seem to perpetually allow even the most well-meaning ideas to go terribly and tragically wrong.