Homeless Court Gives Offenders New Start
Homeless people or those who are at risk of losing their homes can clear up their outstanding warrants or have their minor misdemeanor or non-violent cases disposed of in the Homeless Court, the first and only one of its kind in Massachusetts.
The Homeless Court is presided over by First Justice Kathleen Coffey of Boston Municipal Court (BMC) – West Roxbury. The court is a quilt of resources stitched together by collaborative agencies which include the BMC-West Roxbury Probation Department, Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley's Office, the Clerk's Office, the CPCS (Committee for Public Counsel Services), the Men's Stabilization Unit at Lemuel Shattuck Hospital, and the the Pine Street Inn.
The court meets once every two months at Shattuck Hospital where one to five cases are heard per session. Probation Officer David Giacalone screens candidates for the program who have open probation warrants. District Attorney Dan Conley's Office and attorneys from the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS) conduct screens of individuals who have straight warrants or default warrants on untried matters, according to Judge Coffey. Shattuck Hospital social worker works with the candidates to ensure that they have completed the typically 28-day drug treatment. Upon completion of treatment, the social worker writes a “Letter of Advocacy” to support their appearance before the Homeless Court.
“The District Attorney's Officer decides whether or not they want to prosecute the defendant for the open charge or whether a dismissal of the case is appropriate because the charges are minor and the defendant is in substance abuse treatment,” said Judge Coffey.
During the off months, all of the partners meet as a group to review which approaches have been successful, explore possible enhancements to the court, discuss cases, and ways to assist more people.
Judge Coffey established the Homeless Court in December 2010 as a pilot project and modeled it after the more than 20 year-old Homeless Court in San Diego, California which was first started at a Veteran's Shelter. The brainchild of Boston's Homeless Court, according to Judge Coffey, is retired Judge Maurice Richardson who traveled to California to get a first-hand look at the California Court. There are also Homeless Courts in Atlanta, Georgia and New York City.
“Retired Judge Maurice Richardson saw the court in operation and found it applicable and useful for the City of Boston,” said Judge Coffey. “The whole point is for the court to be more accessible and responsive to homeless people and those at risk of being homeless.”
She added, “The court facilitates the removal of warrants and disposal of open cases. Many of their offenses include common nuisance offenses such as being a disorderly person, trespassing, and sleeping outdoors. Because they do not have a home, they may have poor record keeping and they do not show up in court. The cases and outstanding warrants interfere with their ability to find housing and receive government benefits.”
The clearing of cases enhances the case management in the court system, according to Judge Coffey.
Probation Officer Giacalone determines whether an offender, who has open probation warrants, is an “appropriate candidate” for the program which requires that the offender has participated in substance abuse treatment. Giacalone pulls the records of the offenders, contacts the supervising Probation Officers at each of the courts where an offender's case originates from, and gathers information on the offender. He also ascertains whether substance abuse treatment is an underlying matter.
“The program helps people get back on track. It is very productive and beneficial. If they are engaged in treatment, they get involved with the program and have a better life in the future. Some people are having a very difficult time. With all the factors combined—substance abuse, homelessness, mental illness—they might not use their best judgment. With a clear record, they may get housing, treatment, benefits, and an opportunity to address their court cases,” said Giacalone.
“Not all cases are appropriate. For example, outstanding restitution and indecent assault would not be heard in the Homeless Court,” said Judge Coffey.
The Homeless Court will celebrate its second anniversary in December and Coffey is pleased with its progress.
“My expectations have been met for the most part. We were hoping that it would allow people to remove their defaults and have a new start. It has been very humbling to hear about people who have overcome their addictions,” she said.
Gerald Stewart, Suffolk County Second Assistant District Attorney said of the program, “Homeless Court is designed to help the most vulnerable population and to reduce the legal barriers they face which can prevent their full integration into society. It is also a hugely productive partnership between the Court, the Office of the District Attorney, CPCS, the Probation Department, and the administration and treatment providers at the Shattuck Hospital.”
The Homeless Court has been endorsed by Boston Municipal Court Chief Justice Charles Johnson as well as Acting Commissioner of Probation Ronald P. Corbett Jr.
“This specialized session is designed to assist the Department in fulfilling its mission of service and equal access to justice for all of Boston's citizens. We hope that West Roxbury's service to our homeless population can be duplicated throughout the Department,” said Chief Justice Johnson.
“Homelessness and being at the risk of becoming homeless are challenges many probationers are facing. These living conditions create a huge barrier to their success in creating a better life for themselves. The Homeless Court is addressing these challenges and helping people get back on their feet,” said Commissioner Corbett.
Shattuck Hospital Lead Social Worker Patricia Cahill said of the program, “It 's been a great experience working with the judge, probation, District Attorney, and CPCS-partnering with these agencies to solve this problem.”
Judge Coffey said the partnership is the reason for the Homeless Court's success.
“I am pleased with the spirit of collegiality among the different entities who have historically not worked together in the past. It is essential that we have this collaboration because one entity cannot do this by itself. It is the pooling of resources that has contributed to the administration of justice.”
The First Justice would like to see an expansion of the Homeless Court to include other community partners such as the Veteran's Hospital and St. Francis House. She also envisions the start of Homeless Courts in other regions of the state.
“The Homeless Court has allowed us to look at old problems in new ways,” said Coffey.