Judge Gordon Baranco donned his robes at the last minute, putting them on over a grey suit and a tie on which a reindeer tugged Santa in a sled. Baranco normally hears cases in the Alameda County Superior Court, but today he was presiding over a ragtag crowd in a well-used community center, where the homeless and formerly homeless defendants had gathered to have the fines associated with minor offenses waived. Baranco stood in front his makeshift bench, a rectangular folding table, and began his introduction. “This actually is a court,” he said. “We figure we need to meet people on their own terms. We figure most of you don’t like going to the courthouse.”
This prompted a laugh from the 30 some people sitting in the blue plastic chairs that formed the gallery, who laughed because he was right. They were here, in the Saint Vincent de Paul center near downtown Oakland, because they had avoided court for too long, often for legal problems stemming from their homelessness. Many were recovering addicts; some grappled with mental health problems. Because their predicament had made it hard for them to deal with court procedures promptly, their misdemeanor and traffic tickets had piled up—doubled in price, tripled, gone to collections, earned them bench warrants for failure to appear in court or resulted in holds on their driver’s licenses. Some were on probation, some had fines associated with pending criminal cases. But they were present at the last Homeless Court session of 2012 to have those obstacles to their progress removed.
The Alameda County Homeless and Caring Court program is an alternative to the traditional court system. The special court session is focused solely on the homeless and formerly homeless and assembles every two months to resolve individuals’ non-violent infraction and misdemeanor cases. Traffic violations, like driving with a suspended license or without registration, were the most common cases the court heard in December, but public nuisance tickets for being drunk in public, trespassing, or sleeping in a park after dark are frequent too, says program coordinator Kathie Barkow. These are the types of tickets that, dealt with responsibly, would likely have led to penalties like community service, rather than fines, she says.
To be eligible, participants must show they are actively working to better their situations. The hope of those who run the program is that by meeting them in a familiar, non-threatening setting and rewarding the work they’ve done to reintegrate into society, the court can process stagnant cases and help the homeless improve their lives. The program resolves about 300 cases per year, and those numbers have increased since the economic collapse in 2008, Barkow says.
In the airy community room, the trappings of a traditional courtroom were in place—California and American flags flanked the judge’s station and a carved model of the state seal was perched on a tripod—but the makeshift legal theater lacked the ostentation of a dark wood judge’s bench or a bar separating the audience from the proceedings. Instead, posters listing the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions of Narcotics Anonymous were tacked up on the wall—a reminder of one of the space’s other uses—and a Christmas tree hung with softball-size ornaments stood in the corner.
Judge Baranco’s clerk and a deputy district attorney sat at a folding table piled with files to his right. To his left, the public defender’s table was strewn with hefty accordion files. “We call cases in order,” Baranco said before dropping into an office chair behind his table. Names were called three at a time so participants would be ready to join their public defender at the podium and keep up the session’s speedy pace.
When a 28-year-old named Douglas, who asked that his last name not be used, approached the dingy white stand, Alameda County Public Defender Diane Bellas told the judge her client had eight traffic matters he wanted to resolve. “After a period of homelessness he found housing,” Bellas said. “He works almost 40 hours per week now and he’s clean and sober.” Here the audience broke into applause, as it did often during the two-and-a-half-hour session.
Douglas is currently working as a house painter, but says he’s had to forgo job opportunities that require a valid driver’s license. His is suspended because of the delinquent tickets, and getting it back, he says, will enable him to take other work.
Baranco considered a packet of papers in his hand as Bellas spoke. “You owe us a lot of money here,” he told Douglas, something he repeated to others throughout the session. Douglas guessed he had accrued about $6,000 in fines for traffic tickets—a sum significantly larger than what the average Homeless Court participant has racked up, Barkow says.
Douglas shifted uneasily as Bellas presented her notes on his progress. The longtime public defender, who had taken an integral role in the alternative court since its beginning, was days away from her retirement, and it was her last session. With her silver hair pulled back in a bun and a kind but serious demeanor, she explained that Douglas had been volunteering with the Homeless Action Center, a public benefits advocacy group, for over five years. “The people at HAC say he’s doing well,” she said.
The judge looked up from the case notes and addressed Douglas. “Your license is suspended—you absolutely cannot drive,” he said—Douglas will have to resolve some outstanding tickets in other counties before he can get his license back. But the judge also acknowledged his progress and gave him some good news. “All your fines and fees are dismissed,” he said. “Good luck to you, man.”
The Alameda County program, now in its ninth year, came here via Baranco and Jim Brighton, bureau chief for the Alameda County Superior Court, after the pair started researching similar programs in 2003. Baranco had previously been aware of the court session at the East Bay Stand Down, a Department of Veterans Affairs event that offers homeless veterans health screenings, Social Security benefits counseling and referrals to other services such as legal help. He recognized that there was a need in the larger community for a similar court program that addressed the needs of homeless people in general.
At the same time, Brighton says, the first census of homelessness had just been conducted in Alameda County. It showed that at that time some 6,200 adults and children were homeless or in transient or precarious living situations. “Sometimes an idea just becomes powerfully persuasive because it arrives at the right time,” Brighton says. “I think that was the case here.”
Baranco and Brighton started meeting with homeless service agencies to win support for the idea and to learn more about the needs of their clients. By 2004, a pilot project was underway. Today the program is a collaboration between the Superior Court, the county, and EveryOne Home, a county-wide, multiagency council dedicated to ending homelessness. The program receives funding from the Foundation of the State Bar of California and the Administrative Office of the Courts, among other groups. Court sessions happen six times a year, on even numbered months—four times each year at Saint Vincent in Oakland, and two times at the Berkeley Food and Housing Project. Program records show that between 2004 and 2012 the program helped 1,940 defendants resolve 6,020 misdemeanor and infraction cases. Over 96 percent of the program’s approved applicants actually show up for their court date.
The major challenge in setting up the program, Brighton says, was getting access to the homeless community and establishing credibility with them. “We knew they would probably be reluctant,” he says. “This is not a natural thing for courts to do.”
Today, people are referred to the program through homeless services providers, like Saint Vincent, where staffers meet with them regularly. Potential participants must apply for the program several weeks before each session, and to be eligible they have to prove they’ve made progress towards attaining stability, which Barkow says is defined on an individual basis. For one person, finding permanent housing may mark progress; for another, clean and sober time in a rehabilitation program might count. Entering a job-training program might register as headway for someone else.
“In Alameda County we work really hard to define progress by looking at the life circumstance someone was in when they got the ticket and what’s changed since then,” Barkow says. “One way to look at it is that progress activities are a substitute for the community service they otherwise would have been sentenced to.”
Alameda’s program was modeled after the original Homeless Court project in San Diego. A group of Vietnam War veterans started the now-nationwide Stand Down program there in 1988, and a year later San Diego deputy public defender Steve Binder helped launch Homeless Court at the event. “I was frustrated by the way homelessness was being dealt with in traditional court sessions,” he says.
For the long-term homeless, everyday activities can result in tickets. Sleeping in public, public urination or intoxication, unauthorized possession of a shopping cart and trespassing are common citations, says Alameda County Deputy District Attorney Josefa James, who works with the Homeless Court program. But she says she sees fewer of these citations today than she did a few years ago, and as a result, fewer of these offenses show up in Homeless Court now. “In the last six or seven years a lot of cities have stopped prosecuting these types of things,” Barkow agrees. “They have much bigger fish to fry.”
Vehicle-related tickets now most commonly plague program participants. Barkow says she regularly sees defendants who spent time living in their cars, and amassed tickets then. For some in shelters, she says, their cars represented a last lifeline—a way to get kids to school, to make it to make it to work or look for a job—so they kept them though they couldn’t afford to maintain them legally. “Lots of times, by the time they get to Homeless Court they no longer own the car,” Barkow says, “but they’re left with outstanding financial debts that are holding them up from getting a license.”
Probation is another common issue for the homeless, James says. A person might, for instance, be arrested for petty theft and be placed on three-year probation for the misdemeanor. If convicted of another offense while on probation, that person could serve jail time for the original conviction. In Homeless Court, James can agree to let the judge terminate probation early, she says, likely saving the individual jail time in the event of another minor offense.
Organizers say that one reason their clients don’t diligently handle legal matters is because they fear coming to court or interacting with the legal system. Barkow recalls one woman who had a 7-year-old jaywalking ticket dismissed at Homeless Court. But before that, the woman told her, for seven years she had crossed to the other side of the street every time she saw a police officer. “She didn’t want to be arrested, didn’t want to draw attention to herself. She would lose any progress she had made,” Barkow says. “We hear some version of that time and time again.”
Volatile personal situations also make it difficult to take care of court matters. Barkow says many clients are in crisis when they get their tickets, having just left an abusive relationship, lost a family member to violence, had a mental health emergency or otherwise lost stability. In these situations, paying a ticket seems less important than finding a safe place to take young children or figuring out how to get to work. Many others don’t receive court notices because they lack permanent addresses. And still others don’t pay their tickets because they simply can’t afford to. For those receiving General Assistance, Barkow says, most tickets would consume nearly all of their $300 monthly payment.
Homeless Court organizers argue that when courts withhold licenses because of fines that can’t realistically be paid, or that when access to Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and other federal and state benefit programs is denied to applicants with outstanding warrants, it thwarts the efforts of the homeless to re-enter society. “If you treat people with respect, they can seize those moments and reclaim their lives,” Binder says. “Just by showing up, they’re letting the community know they want a better life.”
Binder said he understands communities wanting people off the streets, but moving them into the criminal justice system doesn’t address the issues that often contribute to homelessness, issues like addiction and untreated mental health problems. “It just pushes a social problem into the courts and makes it a legal problem, at great cost to the participants and to court,” he says.
In 1989, that idea was groundbreaking. When Binder and the Stand Down representatives took the idea of an alternative court to their county’s presiding judge and to the San Diego City Attorney’s Office, it was initially met with skepticism, he says. The judge’s response to the persistent failure of homeless individuals to meet their court dates, Binder says, was “Well, tell them to come in!” The breakthrough came when the lead court clerk said it would be possible to recreate a courtroom outside the courthouse and maintain the court record, Binder recalls.
The other hang-up was convincing homeless veterans that holding a session outside of the actual court and inviting them to come discuss their misdemeanors wasn’t a ploy to jail them. The first Homeless Court in the country was held on the handball courts in Balboa Park. Binder says the outdoor court was packed. When the first participant had his fines dismissed, he says, “There was an audible gasp when that guy walked away.” But as more defendants left the court free of fines and without warrants, the program established legitimacy and veterans flooded in. By 1995, it had expanded beyond veterans to serving all homeless people. Today, 16 California counties and nine counties across the country operate the alternative courts, according to the American Bar Association.
At the December court session in Oakland, a broad range of personal situations was evident, but certain themes emerged as the public defenders recounted their clients’ recent histories. There were those recovering from long periods of substance abuse and prolonged homelessness, like a man who stood sheepishly at the podium while a public defender told the judge that her client has been off methamphetamine for six years.
“What made you stop, man?” Baranco asked, as he did of other recovering addicts during the session. The man said he has a young daughter. “What about your daughter?” the judge asked. “I can’t look her in the eye and be high,” the man said. At this, the judge stood to shake his hand and the two awkwardly embraced.
Many of the women there that day had experienced periods of homelessness after leaving abusive relationships, according to statements from their public defenders, and had accumulated traffic tickets and other kinds of fines during that period. One woman said she was in an abusive marriage for 25 years and was homeless for two years after leaving. Another said she left a violent partner after 10 years and she now counsels other women who are in abusive situations.
A 22-year-old woman who gave her name only as Iliana said she got into an abusive relationship after leaving the foster care system at age 18. When she left her partner, she was temporarily homeless with her son, who’s now 6 years old. She spent a lot of time in her car during this period, she explained after her turn before the judge, and when she got pulled over for a broken taillight she ended up with a ticket for driving without a license. When she recently tried to get her license, she was told she couldn’t until she dealt with her unpaid fines. With her fines cleared, she’ll be able to get her license and take a driving job she’s been offered, she said.
“You’ve been taking care of business, huh?” Baranco asked her, sounding like a proud uncle as he considered her paperwork. “You feel pretty good about yourself?”
Iliana smiled shyly, wedging her hands deeper into her pockets, as the judge dismissed her fines.
For Douglas, who walked away with 8 traffic tickets cleared, this court experience was “a big difference from going to traffic court where you feel like cattle,” he says. “I mean, I’ve never been applauded at court. They always pay attention to what you’re doing wrong, not what you’re doing right.” In Homeless Court, he says, he felt like his actions were put in context—the progress he’s made was valued, not overshadowed by his mistakes. “I appreciate everything that they’re doing to help people,” he says. “There’s a lot of people who are held back by the same things. I’m thankful, grateful, appreciative.”