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Law Office Management

Jul. 2, 2006

A Different Approach to Homelessness

Seventeen years ago San Diego established the first court to deal exclusively with homeless people. The idea has finally caught on.

By Bill Blum
      Courts for the homeless catch on across the state.
      Homeless courts are not courts in the conventional sense, but they are clearly making an impact. In fact, since 1989, when San Diego convened what is believed to be the first court for homeless people in the nation, the idea has spread to Ventura, Kern, Orange, Santa Clara, and Alameda counties, as well as to other states including Colorado, Florida, Michigan, New Mexico, Texas, and Washington. In April, as part of Los Angeles County's $100 million anti-homelessness plan, the board of supervisors voted to set up homeless courts in five new multipurpose regional stabilization centers that will also offer emergency shelter. And, recently, San Diego expanded its program to cover the northern reaches of the county.
      The San Diego homeless court meets the third Wednesday of every month in community shelters run by Saint Vincent de Paul and Veteran's Village. "All the traditional court players participate, from the judge and prosecutor to the defense attorney, court clerks, and bailiffs," says Deputy Public Defender Steve Binder, who chairs the Ameri-can Bar Association's Commission on Homelessness and Poverty. But that's where the similarity ends.
      "We emphasize a less adversarial, team approach," he explains. The court handles a range of low-level misdemeanor offenses and infractions, such as petty theft, riding public transportation without paying the fare, public drinking, and public urination. "What we can do in the privacy of our homes," he says, "is often a crime for the homeless."
      The cases begin with a referral to Binder from homeless shelters and service agencies such as the Salvation Army and the YWCA.
      The court researches Binder's list of candidates and prepares a final calendar of 150 to 200 cases. "The goal of the proceedings is to help move an individual in a positive way toward self-sufficiency," Binder says. "Ninety percent of the cases result in dismissal of all charges. The rest result in plea bargains to lesser offenses. No one goes to jail."
      Best of all, according to Binder, the homeless court works, for both homeless people and the justice system. He cites a 19992001 study that put the recidivism rate for homeless-court defendants at 18 percent. By comparison, the one-year recidivism rate in 2004 for individuals sentenced to state prison stood at just over 38 percent. "Our appearance rate [for defendants] at the homeless court is also much higher than those in traditional court settings," Binder adds.
      Superior Court Judge Michael Tynan, who has ridden the homeless circuit in Los Angeles for nearly six years, enthusiastically concurs. "These courts are a win-win situation for everyone," he says. "I get tears in my eyes when we hold these sessions. These are very fragile people who need a lot of help, and yet they've been able to get their lives together, reunite with their families, and work at city jobs."
      Still, Tynan cautions, any expansion of the homeless court along the lines proposed by the board of supervisors will take a substantial commitment of resources. The board's proposal describes the five-court plan only as a long-term goal.
      Back in San Diego, though, Binder sees little alternative but to push ahead with these programs. "If government can't pull it together and provide these services," he asks, "how can folks on the street pull it together?"

Annie Gausn

Daily Journal Staff Writer

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