Homeless court in San Diego: beacon of excellence

"No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main." -- John Donne

In contrast with our recent history of abysmally inept local governance, San Diego's Homeless Court Program, or HCP, stands out as a beacon of excellence. HCP is an alternative to the traditional court system for dealing with homelessness, and is designed to "bring the law to the streets, the court to the shelters, and the homeless back into society." It has received recognition and support from the American Bar Association and in 2004 was a finalist for the "Innovations in Government Award" at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

Moreover, since its founding in 1989 by Steve Binder, an attorney in the Office of the Public Defender, HCP has become a model for a growing number of homeless court programs across the country (at this writing 16 in California and some 15 more nationwide).

To understand how HCP works, and why it does, it is useful to consider first how the traditional system deals with the homeless.

The traditional approach

Homeless people are often engaged in a "cat-and-mouse" game with the police, who sweep an area and issue citations for criminal misdemeanors to move the homeless on. The citations cover public nuisance offenses such as being drunk in public, "illegal lodging," urinating in public, camping in a park or on the beach and "habitation in a vehicle." The homeless are then forced into a new area, the police again sweep in an effort to clear the area, and a new round of citations and removals ensues.

In the process, a homeless person can often collect numerous citations, each one demanding bail, which he or she cannot meet, and threatening incarceration or fines, which he or she cannot pay. Many defendants then fail to appear in court because of their personal condition or circumstances, or for fear of being fined or jailed. Arrest warrants for nonappearance start to accumulate, unpaid fines pile up, but the underlying misdemeanor charges go unresolved. When defendants do appear in court, the traditional system relies on levying fines, requiring community service or imposing jail time. And then the defendants are back into the streets.

This approach leaves many prosecutors, judges and police officers frustrated. They recognize the traditional routines and tools -- citations, fines, jail time, then back on the street -- create a "revolving door" for the homeless that burdens the system and clogs caseloads without addressing the underlying problems of homelessness. The homeless cycled through the system come out much the same as they went in, still having to face the daily struggle for food, clothing and shelter; only now the trials of everyday life are compounded by unresolved legal problems, which can prevent getting a job, housing a driver's license or qualifying for public benefits.

How HCP makes a difference

While the traditional approach is coercive, HCP's approach is voluntary and relies on a partnership linking homeless shelters and related service agencies, the homeless who wish to enter the program, prosecutors and public defenders, and the San Diego Superior Court. HCP works like this:

  • Homeless shelters and related service agencies are the entry points for HCP. They sign up homeless people who wish to participate, and work with them to develop a rehabilitation plan appropriate to each participant. The participants in turn undertake to carry out the plan and meet its standards and benchmarks for completion. Rehabilitation can include classes and counseling in life skills and dealing with chemical dependency, attendance at AA or NA meetings, completion of computer training or literacy classes, training or searching for employment, or volunteer work.
  • On signing up, participants provide basic contact information on an HCP Interest List, which is forwarded to the public defender, the prosecutor and the court for a review of open misdemeanor cases and warrants, fines and penalties outstanding against participants on the list. Only misdemeanor cases such as public nuisance offenses, petty theft and traffic violations are considered for HCP; felony crimes do not qualify (nor do parking tickets). The court clerk then places active cases on the HCP calendar, and participants are given a court date for a hearing.
  • The public defender and prosecutor negotiate, case-by-case, plea agreements for participants who have active cases on the list. The agreements acknowledge steps participants have taken in their self-rehabilitation plans before their appearance in court. In effect, the plea agreements seek to have the rehabilitation activities that participants already have completed accepted by the court as "alternative sentencing," instead of the more traditional sentencing a court might order.
  • Superior Court judge "brings the court to the shelters" by holding monthly HCP session in a homeless shelter (currently, Veterans Village of San Diego and St. Vincent de Paul Village) to hear HCP cases with all the formality and dignity of a regular court session. Each defendant appears individually before the court, with the public defender and prosecutor, and submits his or her plea agreement with proof of completed rehabilitation activities and other supporting documents. The judge reviews the defendant's submissions, often questions the defendant and consults the public defender and prosecutor. In some 90 percent of cases, the judge accepts the defendant's completed rehabilitation activities as "alternative sentencing" and, as envisaged in the plea agreement, formally dismisses outstanding charges against the defendant. The defendant leaves court with a clean record.
    Supporting HCP

    HCP does not solve the problems of homelessness. But it does make a real difference in the lives of a growing number of homeless people. In its first full year after founding in 1989, HCP resolved 629 cases against 196 participants. In the most current period for which statistics are available, January through October 2006, HCP resolved 3,552 cases against 970 participants. Individual success stories of rehabilitation are far too numerous to be described in this article, and the incidence of repeat offenders is low. A report issued by the San Diego Association of Governments in 2001 found nearly 80 percent of HCP participants had no post-hearing criminal charges.

    HCP is currently funded by Ashoka Innovators for the Public, the San Diego Bar Foundation, the American Bar Association Commission on Homelessness and Poverty, the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans and the Brennan Center for Justice. Funding remains precarious, however, and most of the funds from these sources will soon run out. The San Diego business community should step up to support HCP. The program is an effective alternative to traditional "revolving door" routines that, because they fail to address underlying problems, trivialize the police and courts in their efforts to deal with the homeless and waste taxpayer dollars. Because HCP asks homeless people to take responsibility and find opportunity in adversity, it helps them return to productive lives.

    Kaplan is an international corporate attorney and HCP volunteer. Send comments to All comments are forwarded to the author and may be used as Letters to the Editor.

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