A Plan to Establish Homeless Courts in Santa Cruz

The time is right for a new holistic approach to justice that enables homeless people to lead fulfilling lives in their community. Whether it is in the name of social justice or criminal justice or restorative justice, the Homeless Court program will advance human justice for those in our city experiencing homelessness.

by Steve Pleich

Historically, “homeless courts” or “community courts” have met with a very cautious reception among homeless advocates. One of the first such programs was created in 2007 by then-San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom who pushed for the court after a visit to Manhattan’s Midtown Community Court.

Offenders in that court, including minor misdemeanants and subway fare evaders, were offered the chance to have their crimes wiped from their records in exchange for participating in social services or performing community service.

The model was first applied in San Francisco’s Tenderloin as a method to tackle quality-of-life crimes such as camping on sidewalks and public urination. The so-called homeless courts initially drew scorn from homeless advocates who said it would criminalize homeless people. The homeless courts were seen as part and parcel of the anti-homeless strategy of Mayor Newsom, who championed several other anti-homeless measures, including the aggressive enforcement of quality-of-life crimes, a campaign to criminalize panhandling and a heavily criticized attack on poor and homeless General Assistance recipients.

Although the criticism of homeless courts has softened somewhat over the years, a measured approach to the concept is still warranted. Project Homeless Connect, which has organized and hosted the one-day homeless services fair in Santa Cruz for the past five years, believes that the time is right for consideration of such a court in Santa Cruz and Santa Cruz County. There are many reasons why this social justice model might provide substantial benefits to our local homeless community.

For many members of the Santa Cruz homeless community, the challenges of a chronic physical or mental disability are not the only obstacles to getting their lives back together. Some have accumulated hundreds or even thousands of dollars in fines they cannot afford to pay. These fines are the result of citations for infractions, most often for violation of vehicle codes or city ordinances. Many homeless people have received numerous illegal camping tickets from years of sleeping in public spaces in violation of the local ban on sleeping outdoors.

A smaller number of people experiencing homelessness have outstanding fines or open cases related to lower level misdemeanors such as vagrancy, disorderly conduct or public intoxication. As a practical matter, these unpaid fines and unresolved dispositions create insurmountable obstacles to finding gainful employment, securing financial aid, qualifying for permanent housing or getting medical and/or behavioral health care.

The Project Connect Homeless Court Program is designed to address these challenges. It is modeled after Project Clean Slate offered by the County of Santa Cruz years ago and would be a court of “good dispositions” for homeless participants.

The current working model provides for a sitting judge or commissioner designated by the presiding judge of the Santa Cruz County Superior Court to hear and dispose of cases that come before him or her. The judge would be assisted by a clerk of the court designated by the chief executive officer of the Santa Cruz County Superior Court.

A deputy district attorney with full authority to dispose of “low level” misdemeanor cases would represent the District Attorney’s Office. The deputy would also be authorized to set aside unpaid fines on closed cases and make recommendations related to community service options. A public defender or an advocate from the Homeless Persons Legal Assistance Project would provide pro bono legal assistance to participants.

 

Will homeless courts offer a more humane alternative to the punitive approach of the criminal courts? Art by Osha Neumann

Will homeless courts offer a more humane alternative to the punitive approach of the criminal courts?        Art by Osha Neumann

 

This program is now in the conceptual stage. Project Homeless Connect hopes to gather together representatives from the Santa Cruz County Superior Court, District Attorney and Public Defender Offices, Clerk of the Court, Homeless Legal Advocates and the Homeless Services Center to work together to develop the framework for a successful program.

It is the hope of Project Homeless Connect and its community partners that this program will encourage participants to make good choices in the future and provide them with more options for “positive outcomes.”

But the program participants are not the only potential beneficiaries of this program. Local courts and court administration will also benefit in terms of reduced court calendaring as well as the personnel and resource expenditures that can be saved by giving our participants an opportunity to return to lives lived “outside” of the criminal justice system. And, in a perfect world, the monies saved could be applied to much needed but severely underfunded services for our homeless community, adequate shelter space being foremost among them.

Although the first session of any homeless court is still several months away, Project Homeless Connect and its collaborative partners believe that the potential benefits to the homeless community, the court system and the community at large are well worth the effort.

The time is right for a new holistic approach to justice that helps homeless people realize their potential and enables them to lead fulfilling lives as active contributors to their community.

Whether it is in the name of social justice or criminal justice or restorative justice, the Project Connect Homeless Court Program will advance human justice for those in our community experiencing homelessness. That is our goal.

Steve Pleich is a member of the Project Homeless Connect Steering Committee

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