Times-Herald (Vallejo)

Bill would put homeless courts where homeless are

- By Nigel Duara

Desiree Garibay used to sleep outside in Redondo Beach. One night in July 2020, she was lying down in a city park and police issued her a ticket.

She missed her court date, and the ticket became a warrant for her arrest. She said she became even more determined to avoid the courthouse.

But on a Wednesday in April — nearly two years after getting the ticket — Garibay stood by while Los Angeles County Sheriff's Deputy Lonnie Smith waved a metal detection wand over her black Selena sweatshirt. Then she walked into what appeared to be an outdoor job fair, with white tents arched over picnic tables.

Cheery nonprofit workers in matching turquoise shirts greeted her and asked if she needed anything.

A judge in a black robe sat behind a courtroom bench, but instead of handing down sentences, she told defendants things like “excellent job,” “congratula­tions” and “you have so much good news.”

This is still, technicall­y, Los Angeles County Superior Court. Except it's outside. And, more critically to people such as Garibay, 31, the court makes the unhoused defendants a promise: If you show up to court, we will not put you in jail.

Further, they pledge to help those in attendance get housing. The job fair tents are actually a collection of homeless advocacy organizati­ons, legal expungemen­t teams, mental health and drug counselors, and housing assistance groups.

California already has more than 450 homeless courts across 19 counties, but the Redondo Beach court organizers say their model works better. Here, court convenes in a central location where the unhoused tend to congregate — in this case, close to a food donation center and two religious homeless outreach organizati­ons.

Now organizers want to take that concept and apply it statewide.

A bill sponsored by Torrance Democrat Al Muratsuchi, AB 2220, would create a homeless courts pilot program, offering grants to counties which can tailor programs to their own communitie­s. Outdoor court in Sacramento in August may be less appealing than a spring beach day in Los Angeles County. But the idea is to help counties take their courts to places the unhoused are more likely to show up, while providing services such as employment assistance and substance abuse recovery.

The specifics of the bill's funding are unclear. The bill calls for giving the Judicial Council an unspecifie­d amount from the general fund to administer the programs.

“At first I didn't answer the summons, I got a warrant, and there were old warrants too, three (altogether),” Garibay said.

It's a familiar refrain to homeless advocates and defense attorneys: One original charge metastasiz­es into a series of missed court dates, warrants for failing to appear and possible jail time.

But Garibay left court smiling, her ticket dismissed. She also walked away with a lead on a new place to stay.

“The best thing about it, other than bringing it to the community where they are, is that a lot of what we do in California for the homeless is in silos,” said Redondo Beach City Attorney Mike Webb. “We bring it all in one place.”

The homeless court appears to be working. Attendance is far from perfect, but it's much higher than what homeless courts typically drew when the court was held at the county courthouse in Torrance, Webb said. Statistics provided by the city of Redondo Beach show monthly attendance between 68% and 100%, for an average of 80% attendance since the court moved outside in September 2020.

Webb is the public face of the program, testifying twice at the Capitol, and said the court's encouragin­g attendance statistics were a combinatio­n of design and circumstan­ce. The court only moved outside because of the pandemic.

“I wish I could say we mastermind­ed it, but really, the pieces fell into place and it became something that worked,” Webb said. “In my 35 years of working in criminal justice, I have not seen anything (else) where the interests of everyone align.”

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