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California and the West

Homeless Court Offers New Hope for the Down and Out

Law: A novel San Diego program brings justice to where the poor live, resolving minor offenses and encouraging defendants to get help.

May 01, 2000|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — Short on judicial majesty but long on streetwise practicality, Homeless Court is in session.

"No one is going to jail this afternoon," Superior Court Judge Leo Valentine Jr. assures three-dozen people waiting nervously on folding chairs at the city's largest homeless shelter. "We're here to work with you."

For the next few hours, Valentine deals with minor offenses often associated with homelessness: disorderly conduct, public drunkenness, public urination, panhandling, fare-hopping, sleeping in doorways and petty theft.

The judge dispenses scoldings, homilies and a few attaboys. The pace is brisk and the language unadorned by legalese.

In deals worked out in advance between the city prosecutor and the public defender, the defendants are given credit for having entered a shelter, done volunteer work, or enrolled in Alcoholics Anonymous or other self-help programs.

"When my mother died, I decided it was time to clean up my act," said a 57-year-old defendant, whose red and puffy face bears the mark of chronic alcoholism.

"I lost my father about a year and a half ago; it makes you start thinking about things, doesn't it?" said Valentine.

"I just wish I had gotten sober before so my mother could have seen me," the defendant replied.

San Diego created its novel Homeless Court after realizing that the common method used by courts to ensure compliance--the threat of additional penalties--was largely useless with people who are homeless and, just as often, hopeless.

"We were just spinning our wheels," said Steven Binder, deputy public defender and the guiding light behind Homeless Court. "We needed a better way to get the homeless back into society."

Begun in 1988 at a three-day tent city for down-on-their-luck military veterans, the San Diego Homeless Court is said by homeless advocates to be the only such program in the nation.

L.A. Looks at Concept

And now the system is being studied for possible use by court systems in Los Angeles, Ventura County, Detroit and elsewhere.

In Los Angeles, the drive is being led by U.S. 9th Circuit Appeals Court Judge Harry Pregerson, long an activist on issues involving homelessness.

"Some judges may think that taking the court outside of the courthouse lacks a certain dignity, but I think it humanizes the courts," said Pregerson. "The courts belong to the people."

This week Pregerson will lead a delegation of Los Angeles judges, lawyers and court administrators on a tour of shelters in downtown Los Angeles, Inglewood and the San Fernando Valley that have shown interest in hosting a Los Angeles version of the Homeless Court.

"As far as most court systems are concerned, the homeless are neither here nor there," said Daniel Grunfeld, president of the Los Angeles-based Public Counsel Law Center. "The homeless usually fall through the cracks, and one of the largest of those cracks is the legal system."

The tour was arranged after Pregerson, Grunfeld and the others attended the San Diego court and were impressed. Among those backing the idea of starting a Homeless Court in Los Angeles is Victor Chavez, presiding judge of the Los Angeles Superior Court.

"The homeless see the judicial system as a horrible maze that they can never get out of," Chavez said. " . . . These folks need our help."

Problems with the criminal justice system often contribute significantly to the homeless' downward spiral, said R. Dean Wright, a sociologist and homelessness expert at Drake University.

"The homeless rack up a lot of public nuisance tickets, which they simply don't pay," Wright said. "They don't have the money, they don't understand the system, and many are afraid of going into a courthouse, which they associate with getting locked up."

There is, of course, a long history of judges taking their courts on the road, dating from the circuit riders of the nation's early period. The Midwest has a tradition of "hustings courts" that set up shop periodically in isolated hamlets to dispense justice on a retail level.

In New York, the court system last year opened community courts in Brooklyn, Manhattan and Harlem to deal with misdemeanors, low-level felonies and landlord-tenant disputes.

San Diego's Homeless Court is an outgrowth of another innovation that began here, the annual tent city called Stand Down in which veterans can get help with various problems, including health and housing. Studies have shown that more than 40% of homeless people in San Diego are veterans.

In 1988, Binder and other officials running Stand Down were shocked when the top request from the veterans--116 out of 500--was help in dealing with criminal justice problems. In the first three years of Stand Down, 1,000 veterans received help resolving nearly 5,000 outstanding warrants.

Giving Credit for Progress

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