Hawaii Public Defender Jack Tonaki says his office is struggling with an onslaught of cases involving homeless people who have been cited by local law enforcement for a range of minor offenses.
It can now take several months for clients in need of a public defender just to get an appointment with his staff.
“We are just overloaded,” Tonaki said.
In an effort to break up homeless camps and prod the homeless out of tourist hot spots and away from the doorsteps of shops and office buildings downtown, police have been increasing the number of tickets they’re issuing for a wide range of “nuisance offenses,” such as trespassing, littering, sitting and lying on public sidewalks, urinating and defecating in public, camping in parks and carrying open liquor containers.
The number of homeless on Oahu is also on the rise.
Between 2013 and 2015, the number of these types of citations, which are typically issued to homeless, spiked by one-third on Oahu, to 14,860 from 11,203, Tonaki said.
“We are just dealing with so many of these types of infractions, that frankly the attorneys’ time could be better spent on more serious cases,” he said.
The cases are also clogging court dockets and burdening the workload of the Honolulu prosecutor’s office.
To address the problem, the courts, prosecutor and public defender all are pushing for a mobile court that would travel to areas that are more accessible to the homeless population, such as community centers and shelters. Instead of focusing on fines or jail time, the mobile court would offer alternatives such as community service or mental health and substance abuse treatment.
State lawmakers are currently debating the proposal, which is outlined in Senate Bill 2569. The measure has passed two Senate committees and still needs to pass the full Senate and votes in the House. In addition to the support of Tonaki and Honolulu Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro, the bill has the backing of Gov. David Ige’s homeless coordinator and the state Judiciary.
Janet Kelly, a senior attorney at the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii who spends a lot of her time trying to help homeless people replace lost identification, says that homeless often struggle to make their hearings.
“Typically, they are not able to show up for a court hearing. They don’t have the money to get there. They often don’t have identification to get into the building if they need that,” she said. “And oftentimes, the reality is they don’t remember what day or time their hearing is. They are just trying to focus on basic needs — how they are going to eat today and to keep their stuff safe when they go to the bathroom.”
Tonaki said it’s not unusual for homeless people to be walking around with multiple bench warrants and numerous unpaid fines. But the real problem comes when they try to apply for housing, a job or even identification documents that they have lost while living on the streets or during sweeps of homeless encampments.
“That is when it comes up that you have all of these outstanding court matters,” he said, noting that the compounding legal problems can perpetuate the cycle of homelessness.
The mobile court would only resolve offenses for nonviolent, nonfelony offenses. Prior to the court hearings, the public defender and prosecuting attorney would have already negotiated plea agreements for the defendants, according to the bill.
Dave Koga, a spokesman for the prosecutor’s office, said that the mobile court could help clear out long-running court cases, and instances where homeless are issued multiple bench warrants stemming from a single citation because of their ongoing failure to show up for hearings any pay penalties.
“It’s a cycle that keeps going and going,” Koga said. The mobile court “is a real positive way to help these people resolve their legal problems.”