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Court ends first year of decriminalized homelessness


    A pile of homeless possessions lined up on a sidewalk.

As Oahu’s so-called “homeless court” moves into its second year, the chief justice of the Hawaii Supreme Court wants legislators to know that “it has brought life-changing experiences” to some of its homeless defendants.

In a report for the upcoming legislative session, Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald did not identify any defendants, but wrote that one got a job and is working with a nonprofit agency to find housing; another is no longer homeless, moved back to Washington state and is living at a senior center; another completed substance abuse treatment and moved in with family.

In its first year, 57 homeless defendants — all accused of low-level, nonviolent crimes — appeared before the Community Outreach Court Project, as it’s officially known.



Homeless defendants who appeared before the inaugural Community Outreach Court Project in 2017


Total low-level, nonviolent cases the 57 defendants represented


Community service hours the defendants served rather than face fines or jail


Defendants who have been housed since participating in the Community Outreach Court Project


Defendants who have gotten jobs


Defendants who began substance abuse treatment

Through plea agreements reached between the Prosecutor’s and Public Defender’s offices, the court was able to clear its docket of 601 cases by having the defendants serve a total of 676-1/2 hours of community service rather than face jail or fines that are unlikely to be paid, according to the prosecutor’s office.

The defendants are also helped by social service workers from the Institute for Human Services, Kalihi-Palama Health Center, the CHOW Project, ALEA Bridge and H.E.L.P. Honolulu to help them get off the street.

Nine defendants so far have found housing, nine went into homeless shelters, 11 got jobs, five began substance abuse treatment and two received driver’s licenses or learner’s permits, according to the Prosecutor’s Office.

At the same time, two participants quit or decided the program wasn’t for them, according to the Prosecutor’s Office, and one was removed after allegedly committing another offense.

The Community Outreach Court Project is based on similar courts around the country.

Locally it’s the brainchild of Recktenwald, city Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro and Public Defender Jack Tonaki to let homeless defendants accused of low-level crimes enter plea agreements in exchange for community service while clearing the court dockets of hundreds of cases, including bench warrants issued to homeless defendants who fail to appear.

The project held its first session in District Court on Jan. 26. It ended the year Dec. 18 by moving outside of District Court on Alakea Street for the first time when it held a court session at Wahiawa District Court.

In addition to Community Outreach Court sessions every second and fourth Thursday in District Court, Wahiawa District Court is now scheduled to host Community Outreach Court every third Tuesday.

Last session the Legislature provided $445,000 for each of the next two years to hire staff to expand the program beyond downtown.

By the middle of 2017, both the Prosecutor’s and Public Defender’s offices were praising the project after it cleared a backlog of 268 cases and got four homeless defendants housed, including a man who had been homeless for nearly 30 years.

He faced 33 court cases for infractions, bench warrants and other nonviolent offenses dating back to 2005 and pleaded no contest to one charge as part of his plea agreement.

District Judge Clarence Pacarro then sentenced him to four hours of community service at the Honolulu Zoo, which he completed in March.

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