Homeless Court was started in San Joaquin County in January 2006. Since its inception as a truly collaborative court, I have had the honor of being the judge presiding. The Public Defender’s Office, District Attorney’s Office, City Attorney’s Office, Stockton Shelter for the Homeless, and St. Mary’s Dining Room together worked cooperatively with me to set forth criteria for cases to be heard in the specialty Court.
The reason a Homeless Court was needed is because this segment of the population was weary of the traditional courthouse setting, and they were simply failing to come to court. This group was concerned with meeting their basic needs of finding shelter, food, and clothing. Anything beyond these necessities was put on the back burner for another day. But, many of the homeless need their driver’s licenses to get employment which in turn can lead to affording housing and getting off the streets. The homeless can clear up their driving records in Homeless Court and be eligible for their driver’s licenses. And other homeless have warrants that they need to clear before they are eligible for a bed in a rehabilitation facility, or before they can qualify for monetary benefits. These warrants can be cleared in Homeless Court.
Although the Public Defender’s Office has not been staffing the Homeless Court for the past few years due to budgetary constraints, the County Bar stepped up to the plate and has been providing local members of the Bar who offer free legal advice to Homeless Court clients. Every defendant who participates in Homeless Court has the services of an attorney.
The Public Defender’s Office has announced that they will once again be participating in Homeless Court as of April of 2022.
Most of the offenses that we handle in Homeless Court fall into the following categories: traffic, bench warrants and failures to appear, morals offenses such as fare-jumping, illegal camping, possession of shopping cart, possession of open container, loitering/park curfew, 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 be receiving public assistance and barely making it or is 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 $22 per hour. Many of the participants in Homeless Court are actually in residential treatment programs, and they frequently have racked up thousands of hours of credit in their program to clear tickets that only require a fraction of the hours of service to pay them off.
The philosophy of the court is that we are not giving the homeless a handout, but a hand up. These are folks who have fallen on hard times but who 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. And 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 make one court appearance to clear their matter.
DDA Mary Aguirre was one of the initial collaborative partners who helped start Homeless Court in the county 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. By clearing their outstanding cases, it unclogs the heavy case load for the court as well as the District Attorney’s Office so they can focus on more serious cases. Homeless Court is a win-win for all involved.
Defense Attorney and Bar President Jonathan Garzoi, who has been the primary attorney volunteering Pro Bono for many years, said: “Homeless Court provides many people an opportunity to overcome some of the obstacles facing them as they try to get their lives back on track. My clients have volunteered and have worked countless hours in order to pay fines that have not only prevented them from getting a driver’s license but have also prevented them from obtaining affordable housing. Through the efforts of the Court, Judge Kronlund, the District Attorney’s Office, Deputy District Attorney Mary Aguirre, the staff at St. Mary’s, Mercedes Moreno and the Public Defender’s Office, Public Defender Miriam Lyell, we have been able to help many people in our community to regain their self-esteem and find a pathway for them to help lift themselves out of homelessness. Participating in Homeless Court has been extremely rewarding and uplifting. I hope that we are able to continue and expand Homeless Court in years to come.”
We even handle out of county cases on a regular basis, as well as sending out requests to other counties for our 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.
In order to request 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: . Mercedes’ office number is (209) 467-0703, Ext. 3126.