Homeless Court Programs

Posted: March 26, 2013 in Uncategorized









Though this article was written in 2007, some things never seem to change.

“The Issue: People experiencing homelessness often receive citations for public nuisance
offenses and then fail to appear in court. Homeless defendants fail to appear in traditional
courts, not because of a disregard for the court system, but due to their status and
condition. For many homeless people, their day is consumed with a search for food,
clothing and shelter. Most homeless persons are not in a position to fight the procedural
or substantive issues a case presents. The homeless are aware that the court also requires
a decent appearance. Not wanting to make a bad first impression, a homeless person with
poor hygiene or without a place to store belongings may choose not to appear in court at
all. Many homeless people are reluctant to attend court given the uncertainty of court
proceedings and the threat of custody. Unresolved legal issues can ultimately preclude
homeless people from accessing desperately needed services such as employment,
housing, public assistance and treatment programs.

The Solution: Homeless courts are special court sessions for homeless defendants to
resolve outstanding misdemeanor offenses and warrants. Several jurisdictions in
California have instituted Homeless Court Programs, including Contra Costa County,
Alameda County, and Santa Clara County. San Diego County began the first homeless
court program in the country in 1989.

Homeless court programs reduce court and jail costs, build community collaboration,
improve access to court, and assist homeless people in accessing vital services and jobs.
Access to court for people who are homeless is improved by bringing the court to the
community. Court sessions are held at local shelters or agencies that serve this
population. Many of the homeless have received multiple citations for public disturbance
offenses such as illegal lodging, drinking in public, and loitering. This frequent contact
with police perpetuates the cycle of homelessness.

Homeless courts build on partnerships between the court, local shelters and service
agencies, and the prosecutor and public defender. It attempts to resolve the problems that
homelessness represents with practical solutions. Initial referrals to homeless courts
originate in shelters and service agencies. The prosecution and defense review the cases
before the court hearing, both to make sure the offense is eligible for disposition through
the homeless court program, and to create appropriate alternative sentencing. Alternative
sentencing substitutes participation in agency programs for fines and custody. Homeless
court programs are designed for efficiency: cases are heard and resolved, and people are
sentenced, in one hearing.

To counteract the effect of criminal cases pushing homeless defendants further outside
society, this court combines a progressive plea bargain system, alternative sentencing
structure, assurance of “no custody” and proof of program activities, to address a full
range of misdemeanor offenses and bring them back into society. Alternative sentencing
substitutes participation in agency programs for fines and custody. These activities
include: life-skills, chemical dependency or AA/NA meetings, computer or English
literacy classes, training or search for employment, counseling or volunteer work.
Defendants are ‘sentenced to’ and given credit for time ‘served’ in educational activities,
substance abuse rehabilitation programs, medical care, volunteer and paid work, and
other life-building steps. The court agreement of “no custody” acknowledges the
participant’s efforts in their program activities to satisfy court requirements. Local
homeless shelters and agencies are the gateway for participants to enter this court.
Homeless persons who want to appear before this court must sign up through one of a
number of local shelters and/or service providers. Prospective participants work with a
shelter caseworker to design a plan to move towards self-sufficiency. The shelter
representatives write advocacy letters for each client. The advocacy letter is symbolic of
the relationship between the client and the agency while including a description of the
program, the client’s start date, and accomplishments, programs completed and insight
into the client’s efforts.

Benefits of the Homeless Court Program: Homeless Courts expand access to justice
and reduce the number of hearings necessary to successfully complete court orders by
integrating the shelter system into the “currency” participants present for sentencing.
Advanced preparation and fewer hearings translate into efficiency during courtroom
hours and reduced court costs.

Shelters and service agencies save precious resources when clients move toward selfsufficient
lives with cleared criminal cases. Without homeless court programs, a client
might successfully complete the agency program only to be incarcerated on an
outstanding criminal case and, afterward, return to homelessness. When cases are
resolved through the homeless court the homeless service providers do not have to
redouble their efforts. The shelters address the underlying problems homelessness
represents. Holding court in the shelter gives judges and attorneys easy access to a
defendant’s character witnesses and others who can describe the individual’s
commitment to change. It allows homeless people to participate at a less stressful level
than a formal court hearing room fosters. Perhaps most important, though, it illustrates
the extent to which the justice system is capable of reaching out to disenfranchised
citizens and creating avenues back into the community.

For participants, the Court hearing is an opportunity to separate the past, as represented
by the cases before the Court, from the present (and future) by presenting the
accomplishments described in the advocacy letters, along with plans for future
improvement. The strongest recommendation for creating a homeless court program is
that it is a key element in reintegrating into our society people who have lived long in its
shadows. Anecdotes and statistics show that ‘graduates’ of the homeless court program
in San Diego have the confidence, skills and ‘clean slate’ that enables them to look for
permanent housing (46%), apply for a driver’s license (39%) and seek employment

Homeless courts help the community by engaging homeless people in gainful activity,
thereby removing them from doorways, parks and gathering places where they are
unwanted and susceptible to arrest. It helps homeless people move back into productive
lives by addressing the legal issues that often create barriers to accessing employment,
housing, public assistance and treatment programs.

The benefits to a county that has instituted a successful homeless court program are
extraordinary. Homeless courts bring about significant reductions in the number of
hearings necessary to resolve cases. Homeless courts lower costs associated with
homeless misdemeanants, and significantly raise rates of successful completion of
sanctions without incarceration. Recidivism is much lower, and the bulk of the cases
handled by an HCP (80% to 90%) are dismissed.

HCP provides a cost-benefit to the criminal justice system, although the actual cost
savings may be difficult to calculate monetarily. HCP participants indicated they would
not have voluntarily surrendered themselves to the court for prosecution unless the police
detained them and then booked them into custody. Thus, the cost of law enforcement
booking the defendants into jail (average daily cost in San Diego: $72.84) does not
happen, and the cost of housing a defendant in jail for several days is not incurred. In
addition, resolving a large number of cases for multiple defendants in one setting reduces
the number of court appearances and therefore reduces court cost and court time.

Homeless Courts are presently operating in the following jurisdictions:
Alameda County, CA Phoenix, AZ
Ann Arbor, MI Pima County/Tucson, AZ
Bakersfield, CA Sacramento, CA
Bernalillo County, Albuquerque, NM Salt Lake City, UT
Contra Costa, CA San Bernardino, CA
Denver, CO San Diego, CA
Fresno County, CA San Joaquin, CA
Houston, TX Santa Clara, CA
Humboldt, CA Santa Maria, CA
Kern County, CA Sonoma County, CA
Los Angeles, CA Vancouver, WA
Maricopa County, AZ Ventura County, CA

For More Information: This memo summarizes two very helpful tools on homeless
courts: “The Homeless Court Program: Taking the Court to the Streets,” documents San
Diego’s successful Homeless Court Program and “Homeless Courts Conference
Coursebook,” contains the materials circulated at the American Bar Association (ABA)
National Conference on Homeless Courts on October 8, 2004 in San Diego. Both of
these resources can be found at http://www.abanet.org/homeless/homeless_courts.shtml.
The ABA Commission on Homelessness & Poverty has been instrumental in establishing
homeless courts across the country. The Commission has developed a number of
educational resources and routinely provides technical assistance. The ABA has also
approved policies related to homeless courts, including basic principles for homeless
court programs.”

Photo is of “99” down at the ongoing protest at City Hall (Portland) that has gone on since December 2011 for the right to sleep in peace.

Posted by Ruthie

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