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Time is Right for Community Court
by Steve Pleich (spleich [at] gmail.com)
Sunday Nov 19th, 2017 9:53 AM
Clearing Records and Reducing Fines a Pathway to Employment and Housing
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As I recently observed, the new policy concerning houselessness initiated by Santa Cruz Police Chief Andy Mills has had a broad and profound impact on community. Part of that effect has been to refocus our attention and the community discussion on the continuing and growing lack of available shelter spaces. But we must also as a community view this as an opportunity to engage in the deeper analysis of the root causes of chronic houselessness.

For many members of the Santa Cruz houseless community, the challenges of a chronic physical or mental disability are not the only barriers to getting their lives back together. Some have accumulated hundreds or even thousands of dollars in fines they cannot afford to pay. These fines are the result of citations for infractions, most often for violation of vehicle codes or city ordinances. Others are the chronically homeless who have received numerous illegal camping tickets from years of sleeping in public spaces. A smaller number have outstanding fines or open cases related to lower level misdemeanors such as vagrancy, disorderly conduct or public intoxication. These unpaid fines and unresolved dispositions create insurmountable obstacles to finding gainful employment, securing financial aid, qualifying for permanent housing or getting medical and/or behavioral health care.

A Community Court could be a perfect complement to the Clean Slate Program currently being offered by the Santa Cruz Public Defender’s Office. Clean Slate helps ex-offenders clear or reduce the severity of their criminal records. The program aims to give qualified ex-offenders a second chance at building productive lives. After successfully completing all terms of probation and showing evidence of getting their lives on track, they can legally submit less damning answers to questions about criminal background on applications for employment, housing, financial aid for school, and many public services. In my view, a Community Court could broaden and enhance Clean Slate by designating a court and docket which would deal exclusively with reduction or clearance of criminal records as well as forgiveness of fines and penalties.

A Community Court would be a court of “good dispositions” for houseless participants. A sitting Judge of the Superior Court would be designated to hear and dispose of cases that come before him or her and would be assisted by a Clerk of the Court. A Deputy District Attorney with full authority to dispose of “low level” misdemeanor cases would represent the District Attorney’s Office. The deputy would also be authorized to set aside unpaid fines on closed cases and make recommendations related to community service options. A Public Defender would provide Pro Bono legal assistance to participants. However, program participants are not the only potential beneficiaries.

Local courts and court administration will also benefit in terms of reduced court calendaring as well as the personnel and resource expenditures that can be saved by giving participants an opportunity to return to lives lived “outside” of the criminal justice system. In a perfect world, the monies saved could be applied to much needed but severely underfunded services for our houseless community; adequate shelter space being foremost among them.

Our community is now seriously discussing new approaches not only to criminal justice reform but also about how we address houselessness. By focusing on a practical model of restorative justice like Clean Slate and by the establishment within our Superior Court of a Community Court, we can make great strides toward a more just and a more compassionate community. With a commitment to the establishment of a Community Court, we can make substantial progress toward realizing our vision of restorative justice and toward helping the houseless and those on the fringes of society realize their potential while provide a pathway to employment and housing.
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Humane Judicial EngagementDavidMinton SilvaTuesday Nov 21st, 2017 8:28 AM