Since its inception in January 2006, Judge Barbara Kronlund has had the honor of presiding over San Joaquin County's Homeless Court. Homeless Court is truly a collaborative court, as the offices of San Joaquin County's Public Defender, District Attorney, and SJCBA attorneys together with Stockton's City Attorney's Office, the Stockton Shelter for the Homeless, and St. Mary's Dining Room have worked together cooperatively to set forth criteria for cases to be heard in the specialty court.
The reason a Homeless Court was needed is because the segment of the population that is served by the Homeless Court is often wary of the traditional courthouse setting, and many were simply failing to come to court. Members of this group were concerned with meeting their basic needs: finding shelter, food, and clothing. Anything beyond those necessities is frequently put on the back burner for another day. However, many of the homeless need driver's licenses to obtain employment, which in turn can enable them to affording housing and get off the streets. The homeless can clear up their driving records in Homeless Court and be eligible to obtain driver's licenses. Homeless Court also offers the opportunity to clear warrants that must be cleared before many homeless may become eligible for a bed in a rehabilitation facility or before they can qualify for monetary benefits.
Every defendant who participates in Homeless Court has the services of an attorney. Although budget constraints have prevented the Public Defender's Office from staffing the Homeless Court for the past few years, the San Joaquin County Bar Association stepped up to the plate and has been providing local members of the Bar who offer free legal advice to Homeless Court clients.
Most of the offenses that are handled in Homeless Court fall into the following categories: traffic, bench warrants, failures to appear, morals offenses such as farejumping, illegal camping, possession of shopping carts, possession of open containers, loitering or violating park curfews, and urinating in public. To qualify to participate in Homeless Court, the defendant must be homeless or "at risk of becoming homeless," which generally means the individual must be receiving public assistance and barely making it or "couch-surfing."
Instead of requiring payment of fines and fees with money or through jail time, participants in Homeless Court receive credit for community service or time in mental health or substance-abuse programs at a rate of $10.00 per hour. Many of the participants in Homeless Court are enrolled in residential treatment programs, and they frequently have racked up thousands of hours of credit in their program to clear tickets that require only a fraction of the hours of service to pay them off.
The philosophy of the court is that the homeless are not being given a hand-out, but a hand up. Those who benefit from Homeless Court are folks that have fallen on hard times but are trying to better their circumstances and who want to pay off their debts to society in a way that does not pull them down further into debt or land them in jail. Ideally, the defendants who appear in Homeless Court already have all of their community service or program hours completed prior to making their first court appearance, which means they only need to make one court appearance to clear their matter.
Deputy District Attorney Mary Aguirre was one of the initial collaborative partners who helped start Homeless Court and has been the assigned Deputy District Attorney since 2006. Her view of the court is that participants not only help themselves get back to being productive citizens, they also provide community service which benefits everyone. Clearing their outstanding cases unclogs the heavy case load for the court as well as the District Attorney's Office so that they can focus on more serious cases. In that sense, Homeless Court is a win-win for all involved.
Leah Gillis has been the primary defense attorney handling the Homeless Court and coordinating with other members of the Bar to provide coverage for the homeless defendants. She has been involved with Homeless Court for five years. She believes that the service that this court provides to the clients is invaluable.
"So many of them are crippled with endless court fines without any ability to pay," she explains. "They feel hopeless and frustrated and have given up on the chance of getting out from under them. What we are able to accomplish in this court is allowing them to see the path out. We give them the opportunity to work their fines off, to regain their self-esteem and to see a way to help themselves. It is empowering and extremely uplifting. I hope that we are able to continue in years to come to build on the model we have in this courtroom and find even more innovative ways to break the cycles that lead too many of our population into homelessness."
San Joaquin County's Homeless Court even handles out-of-county cases on a regular basis, as well as sending out requests to other counties for local homeless residents who need matters cleared in other counties but lack the transportation to get to the other counties to make a court appearance. This reciprocal relationship with other counties has been working out very well.
To request that a case be considered for calendaring in Homeless Court, please contact Mercedes Moreno, Director of Social Services at St. Mary's Dining Room. Her e-mail address is: MMoreno@stmarysdiningroom. org. Mercedes' office number is (209) 467-0703, ext. 3126.