Vested in Vets

07/14/2017
Today there are at least 60 homeless courts in the country, and counting. The plight of criminalization of homelessness is one of the biggest challenges they must overcome.
The homeless get arrested for public urination, public intoxication or sleeping in public, formally referred to as “illegal lodging,” and they get a criminal record for convictions of these minor misdemeanors. Unfortunately, they are often our military veterans who served our country. Little policy is in place to handle it with deliberation. Police are called in to deal with a social problem that is beyond them and all they can do is issue a citation or arrest the individual, says Steve Binder, a deputy public defender in San Diego who also serves as Special Advisor to the ABA Commission on Homelessness and Poverty.
 
In 1989 San Diego established the first Homeless Court Program (HCP) in the nation, a special Superior Court session held at local homeless service agencies for homeless defendants to resolve misdemeanor criminal cases. Binder was at the heart of it. In his words, he was a frustrated attorney in the public defender’s office, often seeing the court sentencing homeless vets to a fine, that would increase and  even lead to incarceration, if they returned with new offenses. The penalty would increase but their circumstances remained dire, exacerbated by the burdens of the criminal justice system. Many had outstanding bench warrants, but they were afraid to go to court.
 
Rewind to 1988 when Vietnam War veterans of San Diego created their first “Stand Down,” a three-day event held under a tent on an athletic field in the city. It was created to provide community and an opportunity for public services, including housing, health and employment to homeless vets.
 
The Superior Court decided to use this forum in working with vets, Binder explains, “The homeless veterans trust the Stand Down event, the court can build on that trust, [but] we need to go to them.”
 
There were details to iron out. This included security and accountability—somehow rendering the dismissal of charges meaningful and long-term.
 
The court began their work, first, in conjunction with their “regular” caseload, developed the outline of a new innovative program, and in 1999 funded it with a grant from the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA). The idea, as it is with all homeless courts, was to counteract the effect of criminal cases pushing homeless defendants further outside society. The San Diego court, and others across the country, combine 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.
 
We did not want to just dismiss their cases, but we wanted it to be meaningful to them and the community at large, says Binder. It’s collaboration among the community, two prosecuting agencies, the public defenders office, court administration, treatment providers, and the homeless services agencies that refer them. A bailiff attends every meeting. “We were doing something new and different and needed to be transparent with each other. We had to look out for each others concerns, for public safety and for the individuals safety,” he explains. “If anyone felt compromised it wouldn’t work.“
 
The court does not simply offer a blanket “amnesty,” details Binder. Before any cases could be dismissed vets first had to work with the community and make a genuine effort through social service agencies. The Court clerk had to give assurance they would take care of the cases, processing them and recording judgement as done inside the courthouse. Binder says results were positive from the get-go. “When the court pronounced its order and the first participant left the hearing to return to the event, word got out that the paddy wagon didn’t take them away, they started pouring in. And there were no security breeches.”
 
Today the program continues on a monthly basis with about 60 participants and 250 cases every calendar month. The court deals with a full range of misdemeanor cases (a formal hand-off takes place for felony cases). Cases can be conducted within an hour or two, Binder says, with defendants counseled a week in advance and all parties having reviewed the cases and prepared in advance.
 
When they arrive at “court,” participants (veterans and the general homeless population alike) already have documented proof on their accomplishments. They stand and look face to face with the judge, Binder notes, which encourages more candid conversation, where they can give an account of the travails they've been through and in turn share what their plans are for the future.
 
Fast forward to the present. This year’s annual Stand Down, which will occur July 21-23, will be San Diego’s 30th. As usual, vets will be given meals, showers and clothing as they arrive on the athletic field, but more than that, they will be actively engaged.
 
They will all be assigned a tent with two or three leaders each, Binder says. “And we build a cohesive community.”
 
People often confuse and blend the court name and hearing of proceedings at Stand Down, Homeless Court Program (HCP) and Veteran Treatment Court (VTC). Binder elaborates with a brief explanation for these problem solving, collaborative justice, treatment courts, saying, “I refer to the Stand Down court as an engagement court, the monthly Homeless Court as a ‘recognition court’ and Veteran Treatment Court as one which addresses serious felony offenses.”
 
Participation in these programs is meaningful, says Binder. “Vets are not doing busy work, not sweeping floors, but they've moved their lives along.
 
Addressing Serious Felonies
“Because we’ve been collaborating for many years,” Binder continues, “the Veteran Treatment Court address serious felony cases including domestic violence, gunshot cases, cases of great bodily wounds, etc.” They work within the California penal code for restorative relief, he adds.  All of these courts work to reconcile the behavior and circumstances of offender’s offense with treatment and services to address the underlying cause giving rise to the crime.
In the VTC, under Penal Code section 1170.9(h), the restorative relief translates into an offense that is more than expunged—they are dismissed and sealed and don’t have to be reported to other law enforcement.
 
This helps immensely with future employment, he notes. If they have to plead to petty theft, even if it was for coffee and a Danish or a drink and cheese, with a conviction, they won’t be able to get a job.
 
By the Numbers
The San Diego Court has proof in its numbers. According to Stand Down statistics supplied by the Court, nearly 2,000 participants resolved more than 7,000 cases in the HCP from 2009 to 2012. In monthly HCP proceedings, participants voluntarily spent an average of 291 days in program activities before appearing in the HCP. During that period, the average appearance rate of participants increased to 91.58% in 2012 from 75.97% in 2009.
A few years after the southern California program began, an independent evaluation of the HCP by the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) in 2001 reported a low 18% recidivism rate for veterans participating in the program. Another study conducted in 2013 by a JD/MSW graduate confirmed the 18% recidivism rate, which followed participants two years after finishing the program.
 
American Bar Association Assistance Replication Efforts
In his work as special advisor to the American Bar Association’s Commission on Homelessness and Poverty, Binder has seen homeless courts expanding to many other cities. The commission has been instrumental in this process through its technical assistance, development of approved policies for homeless court programs and educational resources.
 
Best estimates are that today 60 to 70 jurisdictions are operating homeless courts. Among these are Ann Arbor, Michigan, Bernalillo County, Albuquerque, New Mexico, Charleston, South Carolina, Denver and Salt Lake City. Over the past few years new courts have launched in Springfield, Missouri, Columbia, South Carolina and Tulsa, Oklahoma.
 
Another long-established court, a program in Phoenix, is helping the city’s homeless address “one of the biggest obstacles to its quest for self-sufficiency: lingering fines and warrants, often for low-level violations, points out an Aug. 27, 2015, Huffington Post story.
 
This Regional Homeless Court began as collaboration among the Phoenix, Tempe and Glendale Municipal Courts in 2006. It has since expanded to allow participation by all 26 Justice Courts in Maricopa County and all 23 Municipal Courts in the County and is now identified as the Maricopa County Regional Homeless Court (MCRHC).
 
The MCRHC was established with the goal of helping homeless individuals resolve their outstanding fines and warrants for victimless, misdemeanor offenses which would otherwise serve as an obstacle to their finding housing and employment.  In order to qualify for having fines and warrants waived, participants must demonstrate their commitment to ending their homelessness.
 
MCRHC combines punishment with treatment and services in rigorous supervised rehabilitation programs, which typically exceed the sentencing requirements of similarly convicted defendants adjudicated in the normal court process.
 
All applicants to the program must already be connected to a qualified service provider and be in transitional housing, actively seeking employment and completing community service, all of which counts as credit toward paying off their fines. Applicants also cannot have any prior felonies within the past decade, except for drug or DUI convictions, and background checks are performed, the Huffington Post reports.  The court, prosecution and defense participate in reviewing eligibility for MCRHC.
 
On the third Tuesday of every month, homeless court is convened inside the Lodestar Day Resource Center on the Human Services Campus, a one-stop-shop facility where Phoenix’s homeless can access a range of services from both public and private entities.
 
Full Participation
Much has transpired in the way courts are handling the homeless population and our nation’s veterans since San Diego established the first HCP in 1989. In its quest to quell the vicious cycle of homeless criminalization, the ABA Commission on Homelessness and Poverty has recently made presentations across locations in the Midwest and Southeast including Ann Arbor, Detroit, Battle Creek and Traverse City, in Michigan, as well as in cities in South Carolina that include Columbia, Charleston and Greenville, Binder points out.
 
It is not a free ride, however. Participants must demonstrate a certain level of accomplishment in program activities that illustrate a commitment to real change and reform. And the Stand Down/Homeless/ Veterans Treatment Courts must do their part to be collaborative and willing to absolve offenders from these crimes.
 
“It’s so much more than a criminal justice system that just prosecutes,” Binder emphasizes. “We are dedicated to making lives, and our communities, safer and better.” CT

 

    Request More Information

    Required = *