Justice System Alternatives
Successful alternatives to the criminalization of homelessness are solutions to the problem of visible, unsheltered homelessness or street homelessness. People experiencing street homelessness are disproportionately likely to also have mental illness and substance abuse disorders. They are also more likely to experience chronic homelessness: having a disabling condition with more than four bouts of homelessness in the previous three years or having been homeless for one year or more. They are substantially more likely to have involvement with the criminal justice system.
Over the past decade we have learned much about how to effectively end homelessness for this population. As mentioned above these solutions fall in several different realms from providing appropriate services and housing to criminal justice solutions. There are two main reasons why solutions to this problem should involve the justice system itself. The first is that, in many cases, a criminal record in and of itself becomes a barrier to overcoming homelessness. The second is that it can be hard to reach people experiencing street homelessness to connect them to the services that can help them break the cycle of homelessness, addiction, jail, and prison. By implementing interventions within the justice system, communities can take advantage of the time that individuals experiencing homelessness are in the criminal justice system to connect them to the services that will help them stay out of the system in the future.
A number of successful criminal justice solutions are described in the report Searching Out Solutions. Three stand out as being especially successful at both minimizing the negative effects of criminal records and taking advantage of the interaction with the system to directly connect people experiencing homelessness with needed services. They are:
- The development of holistic public defenders offices that go beyond seeking dismissals and actually connect people experiencing homelessness to needed services
- The use of problem-solving courts that meet people experiencing homelessness where they are and seek to create a solution for the individual, not just to resolve the case
- Comprehensive reentry services that includes case management and planning, housing, and employment
USICH spoke with Jeanette Kinard the Director of the Mental Health Public Defenders (MHPD) Office in Travis County Texas (County seat of Austin, TX).
In many public defenders offices, lawyers work on a timeline that begins with their clients arrest and ends when the case is dismissed, their client accepts a plea bargain, or the case ends in trial. Holistic public defenders offices work differently. They don’t start with the exclusive goal of defending the client legally in one case. Instead they have the goal of helping the client address the issues that brought them to the court system to begin with. They address the holistic needs of their clients by providing access to case management and services that go beyond legal aid and help the clients achieve long term stability.
In Travis County, Texas, a team of two lawyers, two master’s level social workers, and two case workers handle 400 legal cases plus an additional 100 other cases referred to them by other lawyers each year. They work exclusively with clients the court has determined to have a mental illness, many of whom are also experiencing homelessness at the time of arrest. The MHPD team either connects their clients directly to services or works with partners at local organizations to provide medical care, housing assistance, employment services, clothing, and some very basic household needs, and to set up access to Social Security and Veterans’ benefits.
“We don’t have a time limit for working with clients and we don’t have strict rules that clients must adhere to,” said Jeanette Kinard. “We work with the client for as long as they benefit from it. In some cases this means active case management over a few years. And we work with clients in a way that helps them achieve their goals.” In one example, Kinard said that a client who had a severe substance abuse disorder needed to enter rehab, but he wouldn’t do it because in order to complete the inpatient program he would have to give up his dog. The MHPD staff developed a calendar to dog sit for the client while he completed rehab and got sober. “Sometimes we have to be a little creative, the client needed rehab to get healthy, but he also needed his dog. This is just one example where the holistic approach allowed us to meet the client where he was and help him make steps toward stability,” said Kinard.
After five years, it is clear that this program is successful. MHPD clients use fewer justice system dollars after they receive support from MHPD. Trials, bookings, jail bed days, and recidivism are all reduced. Several other counties in Texas have since adopted a similar model and are also seeing results. Communities benefit in three ways: the burden on the justice system (and likely other public systems) is reduced, local residents in need of support are helped to reenter society, and the visibility of homelessness is reduced.
A note from Jeanette Kinard:
There are different models of holistic public defender’s offices that can work. Our office operates with dedicated mental health lawyers and it has worked very well for us. San Mateo County, California pioneered a model that relies on a centralized office for case management and social services, but contracts out legal services to a qualified list of lawyers who manage their own expenses. This contract based model is something that might work better but achieve similar results for smaller communities as it doesn’t require full time legal staff.
USICH spoke with Steve Binder the Deputy Public Defender in San Diego and co-founder of the Homeless Court Program there.
Problem-solving courts which are also commonly referred to as specialty courts or therapeutic justice courts seek to reduce recidivism and improve outcomes by connecting defendants to therapy and social services as a part of the adjudication process.
Typically homeless problem-solving courts take place at shelters or other locations or events within easy access to people experiencing homelessness. Criminal justice practitioners (prosecutors, public defenders, judges, and clerks) are joined by social workers and homeless service providers. Together working with the defendant a treatment plan is developed that addresses the underlying cause of the arrest or citations. The treatment plan may include mental health or substance abuse therapy, life-skills or employment training, physical health care, case management, planned access to benefits and/or counseling. “In San Diego, we have had great success both working with clients who have a history of offenses, including those who have committed more serious or violent offenses, as the underlying circumstances, behaviors, and issues are the same,” said Steve Binder. Participants avoid fines and jail time when they provide the court with advocacy letters, certificates and other documentation of accomplishments in program activities. “The traditional court approach of convictions, fines, and incarceration does not solve the underlying issues these crimes represent. As a prosecutor you may get a conviction, as a public defender you may get an acquittal, but at the end of the day the individual involved is still homeless and is still most likely going to end up back in the same place again,” said Binder. “The Homeless Court Program promotes a more effective sense of justice for everyone involved when we address the underlying problems the offense represents while helping individuals addres the issues of homelessness. We promote long term public safety when the Homeless Court participants rejoin the community with a sens of purpose, accomplishment, and the means to live as valued neighbors.”
Homeless courts set defendants on a path toward the resolution of issues that have caused them to be homeless. They can therefore reduce recidivism and the related burdens to the legal system and other public services such as sobering centers and emergency rooms. State and local governments in turn benefit from these reduced costs. Homeless service providers benefit when they are able to connect even the hardest to reach people experiencing homelessness with services. Police benefit when they are able to spend less time chasing the same handful of people experiencing homelessness and instead focus on more serious crimes. The court system benefits when the participant appearance rate is greater in the homeless courts than the traditional court setting. This means more cases are resolved with finality The permanent resolutions of cases allows the court to document that justice is served and people are moving toward self-sufficiency. “While the benefits to these varying systems are tangible and far-reaching, the greatest benefit to the community and to the individual comes from helping someone who has a long criminal history break the dead-end cycle and become a participatory member of their community.”
Starting a homeless court in your community:
According to Binder, generally no legislative activity is needed to set up a homeless court in your community. “You need a committed group of criminal justice practitioners willing to work closely with homeless service providers as equal partners, collaborating to perform their regular 8 am to 5 pm jobs with the Homeless Court Program purpose and process in the alternate environment of a shelter or community center.”
Last year USICH released a newsletter with information from experts, program profiles, and resources on homelessness and the judicial system primarily focused on reentry.