As Oahu’s homeless population grows, so has the number of low-level, nonviolent offenses that are helping to perpetuate homelessness while clogging up the courts.
So the U.S. Department of Justice has awarded $200,000 to the Honolulu prosecutor’s office to kick-start a proposed mobile court aimed at clearing the court docket of thousands of homeless defendants who don’t show up and end up accruing bench warrants and additional penalties that keep them from getting jobs or housing.
Typical homeless defendants cited for low-level crimes fail to appear 40 percent of the time, Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro said Wednesday.
“They don’t come to court, so we take the court to them,” Kaneshiro said. “We want to get rid of all of these cases that are clogging up the system.”
The grant from the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance was one of 10 awarded around the country. It’s intended to help create a new system on Oahu in which a District Court judge, deputy prosecutor, deputy public defender, paralegals and social service caseworkers would travel to community centers near homeless encampments and process as many as 60 cases at a time that otherwise would not be heard.
“It’s a new concept,” said Public Defender Jack Tonaki. “We’re trying to be part of the overall solution of this really pressing problem that’s getting out of control, almost.”
Caseworkers would identify defendants for the public defender’s office, which would work with the prosecutor’s office on plea deals that typically result in an immediate sentence of a day of community service, such as cleaning up graffiti and litter, Kaneshiro said.
The court process is intended to run quickly and not create burdensome penalties such as fines or incarceration that are unlikely to be fulfilled by homeless defendants, Kaneshiro said.
But the judge also could order homeless defendants into a shelter, where they could get social service help with problems that could include drug and alcohol abuse, as well as assistance with job training or housing, Kaneshiro said.
“If there’s a violation of the law, there has to be consequences,” Kaneshiro said. “At the same time, being reasonable, we don’t want to criminalize homelessness.”
Whether the mobile court system gets up and running depends on the future of Senate Bill 2569.
If approved by state lawmakers, it authorizes annual funding of $612,000 — $182,000 for the state Judiciary; $260,000 for the public defender’s office, which will hire outreach workers; and $170,000 for the prosecutor’s office, Kaneshiro said.
The proposed Oahu mobile court is loosely based on a program in San Diego that sets up court in homeless shelters, Kaneshiro said.
The Honolulu model would take the court out to the island’s many homeless encampments, where social service outreach workers would identify large groups of people with outstanding court cases.
For homeless defendants, the mobile court would serve as an opportunity to clear cases that otherwise could prevent them from finding jobs or permanent housing, said Tonaki.
“The number of these types of offenses that traditionally have affected the homeless population has just skyrocketed within the last two or three years — cases like trespassing, sidewalk violations, closed park hours, criminal littering, drinking in public,” Tonaki said. “Many of the people who are affected by these cases don’t have the means to get to court or when they get their paperwork or citation, the paperwork gets lost and they have no idea when the court date is. Having outstanding warrants or outstanding court cases prevents a person from getting a lot of the necessary documentation and paperwork to find jobs and to get into housing. This is a situation that snowballs and just perpetuates homelessness. So let’s take the court out to them and see if we can resolve a lot of these outstanding cases.”
Last year Kaneshiro’s office said there were 8,067 park-rule violations alone.
“We all agree that these are defendants that don’t need to serve any jail time,” Tonaki said. “Let’s let them clear off their cases and start off with a clean slate.”