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A Moveable Court in Contra Costa County Frees Homeless From Shackles of Unpaid Tickets


Deshawn Lamar Clark was released from San Quentin State Prison and returned to where he grew up, near Richmond, Calif., in December of 2005. He was 30 years old.

He returned to Richmond a homeless, jobless man. He owed child support to the mothers of his twelve children. The fine print under his freedom was getting larger. He was staying out of the drug business, but he still lived on the fringes and drove without the blessing of the DMV.

By the time he met Tracy Reed, a caseworker at GRIP, Richmond’s go-to multi-service center and homeless shelter, he had 19 citations totaling over $21,000. In May of 2011, Clark owed more than he’d ever earned, and more than he could ever pay. He’d stayed out of jail, but he’d failed to register his car or acquire a driver’s license.

Last month, Clark and many others had their tickets fixed—legally, by a judge. Contra Costa County’s Homeless Court is for people who have unpaid tickets usually relating to not having a stable address. Once they complete 30 days in a program—whether it’s community service in a shelter (“life skills”), a drug or alcohol rehab program, or job training—they can get their unpaid tickets cleared.

“At first blush it sounds like, ‘you’re clearing up old tickets for some guy sleeping under a freeway?’ said Judge Steve Austin, who started the Homeless Court here and has presided over its monthly sessions since 2006. “But these are all people who’ve been through treatment, who’ve made serious changes to get off the street. At that point, removing the tickets is just us getting out of their way.”

“These people are ready,” said Reed. “People who get off at homeless court don’t get a free ride. They have shown they want to be active participants in society.”

The homeless court model

Homeless Court was created after the veterans group Stand Down conducted a survey among homeless Vietnam veterans. Their most pressing issue turned out to be unresolved criminal or civil cases. Typically, these penalties—like fines for “public nuisance” violations like sleeping, drinking alcohol, or urinating in public—became more daunting to them than accessing food or shelter.

The first session of Homeless Court took place in 1989 at the handball courts behind a gym in San Diego, where homeless veterans tended to gather. Now it has sprouted up in roughly a third of California’s 58 counties, and has yielded savings in court costs. An added benefit to lawmakers, court officials, and taxpayers lies in “alternative sentencing,” said Steve Binder, the San Diego Deputy Public Defender who created the program. Binder said the punitive approach—where unmet citations and fines lead to lockup—makes no sense for people who simply cannot pay.

“The thing is that [regular] courts, while promoting order in our communities, often complicate that order,” he said. “By issuing fines and custody, courts can push people further outside the margins.”

Binder said that Homeless Court is based on the recognition that tickets were never really going to translate into revenue. In fact, he said, penalizing the homeless costs the system far more than it makes.


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