Q&A with Judge Kathleen Coffey

Q: As the momentum to expand Specialty Courts builds, there’s been an increased focus on how Homeless Court sessions are helping this typically invisible and underserved population. Can you describe how this program started, and how it helps remove barriers that prevent homeless people from re-entering society?

The Trial Court modeled the pilot program after San Diego’s Homeless Court initiative, which had been up and running for some 20 years. We invited Stephen Binder, the attorney there, to come and train the social workers and psychologists at Shattuck. The group also included the Men’s Stabilization Unit at Hope Found and the Kitty Dukakis Treatment Center. I’d also like to acknowledge and praise the efforts of Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel Conley and CPCS, because without their support this initiative would not be a reality. Since the 2010 pilot, we’ve been able to expand the program’s reach city-wide, beyond West Roxbury and Shattuck to the entire BMC Court Department, by offering sessions at the Pine Street Inn. This September will mark the second anniversary that we’ve been able to increase sessions from Shattuck to Pine Street.


Q: How are the Homeless Court sessions different from other Specialty Court sessions?

The Homeless sessions are different in that the court goes to the people, not the other way around. We hold our sessions in the basement of Boston’s Shattuck Hospital, and at the Pine Street Inn, not at the courthouse. The key to this whole initiative is holding the court sessions at the shelters. That’s why this program is really an access to justice initiative for homeless folks. We remove the legal barriers to allow them to secure employment, get housing, medical care, job and educational opportunities, drivers’ licenses, and so on.

Homeless people are very suspicious of the court system, and are reluctant to come [to court] because they’re worried their liberty will be taken away. These are folks who don’t do well within the criminal justice system: they default on their warrants; they don’t make bail; they don’t show up on time to court dates. A large part of this can be attributed to the instability in their lives.

So when the court issues a default warrant, for example, it becomes a serious impediment that prevents them from getting out of homelessness. Before these people can become productive citizens who contribute to society, they have to resolve their open court cases, many of which include simple misdemeanors. What could have been a simple matter to resolve, such as paying a fine or performing community service, the homelessness is an obstacle that creates a greater penalty, and continues a cycle that’s difficult to escape.

This initiative also differs from other court sessions in that the participants have already completed or are on their way towards completing the requirements needed to remove their outstanding warrants. I like to call [Homeless Court] the court of second chances because we recognize folks who make substantial and good faith efforts to address their sobriety, employment, education, and mental health issues. We reward their achievements by removing their defaults. By giving them a second chance, they can be included into the fabric of our communities and end their isolation.


Q: Specialty Courts have gotten a big boost recently, with FY2015 funding from the legislature and growing public interest in alternatives to incarceration. How do your Homeless Court sessions help address the unique issues this population faces?

This approach is contrary to the way that the criminal justice system typically addresses defendants and probationers. It’s worth repeating that when these individuals come to Homeless Court, they’ve already completed their requirements to have their case resolved. So unlike most Specialty Court programs, there’s no follow-up or supervision. With Homeless Court, participants have successfully completed what’s necessary: whether it’s attending AA meetings or completing substance abuse treatment, getting their GED, finding a job, and so on. When someone’s on probation, they promise to do these things in the future; there are certain rules and conditions they must satisfy and complete first in order to graduate from the Veterans Court or Drug Court programs, for example.

With the Homeless Court model, defendants have already completed their requirements and have satisfied their promises. So we reward them for good past deeds. The court removes their defaults and terminates their cases, thereby removing the obstacles that prevent them from going forward. Pine Street links defendants to services after the defaults are removed; the court removes the defaults so these folks can become eligible for housing. The courts aren’t in the housing business, we’re in the default removal business—we remove the legal obstacles so that people can get on their way and re-integrate into society.


Q: How does someone qualify for the Homeless Court program?

Defendants must live in a shelter, have an open default warrant for non-violent, non-sex-related felony, and have successfully completed substance abuse or mental health treatment. And both the DA’s office [prosecutor] and public defender have to agree that it’s appropriate to dismiss the case.


Q: Is the program set to expand, and if so, where?

We would be very interested in expanding the program, but that would have to be something that’s worked out between the BMC and District Court Departments. Unfortunately, homelessness isn’t a problem unique to Boston. It makes sense to expand to places outside Boston to better serve the Commonwealth’s other urban centers and suburban areas.


Q: How many people have successfully graduated through the program?

Everyone who participates—each session is, in essence, a graduation. It’s their first time and last time there. The cases are resolved immediately; you’re wiping the slate clean. It’s very empowering because the defendants talk about themselves and how they ended up becoming homeless. I also have their social worker and mental health counselor speak about the defendant’s efforts to address the underlying reasons why they’re homeless. And both sets of lawyers—those from the CPCS and District Attorney Dan Conley’s office—speak on the defendant’s behalf as well. The session can be a very powerful, moving experience.