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Hawaii News

City might establish a mobile court house to handle cases involving homeless

  • DENNIS ODA / DEC. 2015

    Typical homeless defendants cited for low-level crimes fail to appear 40 percent of the time, Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro said.

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.”

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  • “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.”

    So take them into custody as soon as the guilty verdict is found. Don’t fine them. Anyone with common sense knows you can’t get blood from a turnip (therein lies the problem of having politicians trying to figure out a solution to these kinds of problems).

    Why even cite them if there is no penalty?

  • Ridiculous waste of taxpayer dollars. Better to create mobile jails to house the violators, who will surely ignore any court-imposed penalties just as they ignore the law in the first place.

    • WINNAH! Feral humans are all over the place in downtown Honolulu. Every day I see different ones and this “cancer” is expanding.

      I wonder if this problem started a generation ago similar to the AYSO philosophy that “everyone plays and is a winner”. Seems the entitlement mindset is very strong in the current generation and working hard to achieve goals and contributing to society isn’t on the minds of a lot of people at the present time. Growing up in the 70’s, there were only a handful of “homeless” and they didn’t bother anyone. They were dirty and stink yet didn’t create the filth and pilikia that this bunch of feral humans appear to be doing.

  • No wonder people like to come to Hawaii to be homeless. We provide shelter, food, free health services, cell phones, and now if your a criminal we come to you!!! Awesome!!!!

  • What next? Mobile food trucks for the homeless? As long as they are “allowed” to live in such areas there will be an endless backlog of court cases to clear.

  • Give them a one way ticket to the Mainland, $50 cash and tell them….sorry, but don’t come back…….we’ll be watch for you (we’ll put you on the no fly list).

  • 40 percent don’t show up for court. What genius thinks they will show up if you bring the court to them? The only way they show up for court is if their in custody and are brought to court. Might think about arresting them first and worry about court later.

  • So much hatred for the homeless created by politicians criminalizing homelessness. Why not portion an area of Sand Island for a tent city and provide sanitation stations so they have a place they “must” live when swept from street to street?

  • Throwing $620,000 (and you know the real amount is far higher when you start kicking in salary hours, etc.) at a segment of the population who really do not care what a court would decide. Think about this…they aren’t worried about getting housing. Most of them DO NOT want to be housed and live under rules governing normal society. As such, what crazed person thinks that they give a hoot about what a court’s decision is?

  • SA, this story’s heading is incorrect as the City does not handle the Court system. That is entirely a state function. The only component in the judicial system is that of the Prosecutor’s office
    who provide the prosecuting attorneys. The Public Defender’s office is also an agency of the state.
    I suspect that this attempt to bring the court to the homeless is going to be less than successful. Those who are homeless have more important issues to deal with on a daily basis, let alone
    be able and willing to appear in Court.

  • For the 40% homeless defendants cited for low-level crimes whom fail to appear in court, how does the state think that bringing charges to them will make them responsible for their crimes? Community service? Are you kidding me? These people are the ills of society who create these crimes.

    They can’t incarcerate them – prison population is overcrowded.

    They can’t fine them – how will they pay the fines without a job?

    I can see people (residents) that have contributed to jobs and paid their taxes here in Hawaii, then have fallen on bad luck and now need the temporary assistance to get back on their feet. However, the masses from elsewhere who have been sent from other states/countries who try to feed on Hawaii’s Welcomed mat is troubling.

    Hard earned tax dollars by the residents ‘accomodate’ the growing homeless population while finding them shelter, food, healthcare and subsistence.

    Now the state is thinking of ways to spend more money to accommodate those who don’t show up in court for nonviolent offenses. Much needed revenue should be utilized for seniors who have worked for the state that need the healthcare and set aside for them.
    We have infrastructure that needs repairs. Monies are being siphoned off to care for a growing ‘homeless’ population.

    Instead of the ‘Aloha’ state we’ll be known as the ‘Welfare’ state.

  • Instead of establishing a “mobile court house to handle cases involving homeless;” it would be better to establish a mobile home court to handle homelessness. No one likes trailer parks but they are a stepping stone to better housing.

  • What’s the point? Low level crimes sounds like this is just a procedural concern for the courts. They need to document that the person had a trial, a verdict was rendered, and a sentence handed down. Do they grab the person and send them to jail? I’m assuming no, since it’s low level, but the court can’t ignore it because then the law breakers would just continue to break the law with impunity. Oh, wait…

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