Homeless Court: The Court of Second Chances
by Judge Kathleen Coffey
Voice of the Judiciary
The Homeless Court is a specialty court or ‘problem solving’ court established in 2010 at the West Roxbury Division of the Boston Municipal Court. It addresses the needs of individuals who are residents of the Pine Street Inn and area shelters within the City of Boston and who have open default warrants for misdemeanor and low level felonies in all courts throughout the Commonwealth. This justice initiative is based upon the premise that there is room for treatment, compassion and for recovery within the court system. It recognizes that homelessness presents a complicated challenge to the courts demanding alternative approaches in the administration of justice. The court seeks to make the justice system more accessible, accountable and responsive to the needs and challenges faced by this most vulnerable population.
The Homeless Court is modeled after a court program started in San Diego, California for homeless veterans in 1989. Homeless courts currently operate in Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona, New Orleans, Louisiana, and Houston, Texas. This initiative in Massachusetts began as a collaborative effort of attorneys from the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS) and from District Attorney Daniel Conley’s office, and representatives from the Lemuel Shattuck Shelter and court leaders. In the past four years, the Homeless Court has grown to encompass the Pine Street Inn and other area shelters within the City of Boston including Woods Mullen Shelter and St. Francis House. Homeless Court is commonly called “The Court of Second Chances” because it recognizes the importance and value of a ‘second chance’ and rewards those individuals who have demonstrated a commitment to change self-destructive behaviors that led to criminal activity by participating in substance abuse and mental health treatment and maintaining recovery through job training programs and employment. Lyndia Downie, the President and executive Director of the Pine Street Inn since 2001, embraces the concept of offering a second chance to her residents but recognizes that in Homeless Court, “No one is given a free pass; rather, they are just given a chance to rebuild their lives.”
The Problem: Challenges of the Homeless within the Criminal Justice System
The homeless population presents unique needs and challenges to the criminal justice system due in large part to the financial and social instability in the individual’s life and the concomitant personal issues that caused them to become homeless. It is evident that there is a far greater likelihood that a homeless individual will enter the criminal justice system than a housed individual. Experience shows that street violence and the widespread abuse of alcohol and drugs among the homeless population further increases the likelihood of an unfavorable police encounter. Mental health illnesses including depression, anxiety, and paranoia often plague men and women whose dignity, self-worth and identity have been eroded by the loss of a permanent home, employment and family support. Without proper medical treatment and social service interventions, the homeless find that the illnesses routinely spiral into criminal conduct and the consequential effects of arrest and detention instead of treatment and recovery.
Once a person is arrested and charged with a crime, the homeless individual is typically unable to navigate the court system. Confronted with the havoc and instability of living on the streets, homeless men and women are unable and often unwilling to comply with legal obligations and court orders. The homeless population lacks the standard ‘roots in the community,’ such as employment, residence, and family ties, that are contemplated in the bail statute and weighed by a judge or magistrate in determining bail and conditions of release. Default warrants are a chronic occurrence within the homeless population.
The immediate procedural consequence of an outstanding default warrant for a homeless person is the threat of arrest and incarceration. However, the collateral consequences of a default warrant are extensive. Default warrants interfere with a person’s eligibility to receive permanent housing,employment and can effectually bar placement in residential substance abuse treatment programs.
The consequences of default warrants on the homeless are compounded by the reluctance and fear of an individual to go to court to have the warrants removed. The failure to return to court to address an outstanding warrant increases the likelihood that a defendant will be held on bail. This cycle of arrest, detention, default, re-arrest on the warrant and further periods of detention, unfortunately often perpetuates the despair of the homeless population and reinforces ingrained suspicion and distrust towards the police and the court system.
Default warrants also inadvertently result in the victimization of the homeless. In many instances, an individual who knows that there is a warrant for his or her arrest, avoids all reckoning with the police. Similarly, a homeless person who is a victim of a crime is much less likely to seek help and relief from law enforcement officials if the threat of an arrest on a default warrant is imminent.
The Solution: Homeless Court, “The Court of Second Chances”
The fundamental difference between a traditional court and the Homeless Court is that the Homeless Court works with people who have already changed the behavior that led to their involvement with the criminal justice system. It has been described as a progressive plea bargaining system characterized by alternative sentencing
In the traditional judicial setting, the court requires the defendant to promise to change his or her behaviors while on probation. The primary incentive for a defendant’s compliance with the judge’s order is the threat of revocation of probation and incarceration. However, to be eligible to participate in the Homeless Court, an individual must have already completed a substance abuse program or be actively participating in mental health treatment and job training. All of these efforts and achievements occur prior to the Homeless Court hearing. In essence, the individual has already ‘repaid his debt to society’ and has fulfilled the conditions of probation that a judge would ordinarily impose.
During the Homeless Court session, social workers and case managers attest to the individual’s accomplishments and present the specific obstacles that the participants have had to overcome. After reviewing documented letters of support and the sworn testimony of the treatment providers who have monitored the individual’s achievements and progress, the Court is able to remove default warrants, remit outstanding court fees and dismiss cases. During the hearing, participants are recognized for their effort and resiliency in overcoming the stigma, isolation and diminished opportunity caused by their homeless condition and are provided a much coveted and well deserved ‘second chance’ to escape the boundaries of homelessness through permanent housing, employment and stability.
A critical component of the Homeless Court session is the spirit of cooperation and collaboration among the justice partners. Prior to scheduling a matter before the court, all cases are reviewed and vetted by the District Attorney and the participant’s CPCS counsel. If a prosecutor objects to the dismissal or termination of a case, the defendant would not be eligible to participate in the Homeless Court session. When a default warrant has been issued for non-compliance of a judicial order of probation, the supervising probation officer is given an opportunity to express his opinion regarding the progress and suitability of the probationer and suitability for the session. Additionally, as noted, eligibility for the initiative is limited to misdemeanor offenses and non-violent low level felonies.
Under the progressive leadership of Chief Justice of the Trial Court Paula Carey, the Homeless Court’s jurisdiction has been expanded. Currently, an outstanding warrant in any Municipal and District Court for a Pine Street Inn or area shelter resident may be addressed in the Homeless Court session in Boston. All Homeless Court sessions are held at the Pine Street Inn on the third Thursday of every month. Each participant’s progress is reviewed in open court. The participants are encouraged to share their life stories. For many it is an opportunity for reconciliation with a court system that they feared for years and struggled to avoid. Three hundred and eighty three defendants have been referred for participation and have met with a CPCS attorney. One hundred and one homeless individuals have successfully met the requirements of treatment and recovery and have participated in the Homeless Court.
Many of the justice partners and social service providers maintain that the numbers alone do not adequately measure the effect and the impact that the Homeless Court has had on the lives and futures of the homeless within the City of Boston. CPCS Attorney William Lane, who has represented many defendants in the session, notes that,
“Homeless Court reinforces in our homeless community that they matter, that they have value and that they deserve to have their dignity recognized and honored. Homeless clients are excluded people almost everywhere they go, but in Homeless Court, they are told they deserve the dignity of stable, safe and comforting housing, and the Commonwealth and the courts are going to be merciful partners and supporters in that process.”
District Attorney Daniel Conley has been a consistent and steadfast supporter of the Homeless Court since its inception and was instrumental in its development. He maintains that,
“Too often, the criminal justice system is where people end up when other systems and the social safety net fails.Today’s criminal justice system is asked to do far more than it was designed for, but specialty courts show our ability to adapt by helping low-level offenders on the road to recovery and productivity. Homeless Court in particular has a bright future of collaborating with shelters, job training agencies, and other community organizations to reach those with a history of homelessness and enable support, treatment, and stability.The barriers we remove and the progress we help the clients make are rewards that are unlike those in any other specialty court.”
And finally, it should be noted that Homeless Court makes economic and financial sense. In these times of budgetary constraints and reduced judicial resources, the Homeless Court is an excellent example of how collaboration and cooperation among justice partners can create new approaches and dynamic solutions to the rising costs of detention and incarceration. It is a jail diversion initiative that offers a beacon of hope and an end to a cycle of despair and mistrust toward the court system while concurrently providing a second chance for a needy and deserving population to enjoy a stable and productive life.
Appointed to the bench in 1993 by Governor William Weld, Judge Kathleen Coffey has been First Justice of the West Roxbury Court for the past eighteen years. She is the Director of Specialty Courts for the Boston Municipal Court Department. In 2007, she established the Mental Health Court, and in 2010, the Homeless Court.