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Special court helps direct homeless to services rather than jail or fines

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Video by Sarah Domai / sdomai@staravdertiser.com
Honolulu Community Outreach Court addresses non-violent offenses by homeless people with sentences of community service hours rather than go to jail or face fines they cannot afford.
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A woman locked her hands together Tuesday while listening to Judge Darolyn Lendio during a session of Community Outreach Court at Wahiawa District Court.

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David Torres, left, shook hands with Jerry Villanueva, deputy public defender, as Judge Darolyn Lendio presided over a session of Community Outreach Court Tuesday at Wahiawa District Court. Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Mark Tom is second from right.

Honolulu’s 18-month-old Community Outreach Court — aimed at low-level, nonviolent offenses committed by homeless people — doesn’t have the feel of a typical criminal proceeding.

At the start of the latest session held Tuesday in Wahiawa District Court, Judge Darolyn Lendio welcomed the nine “participants,” as they’re called. All were accused of multiple violations — as many as nine in one instance.

Even Deputy Prosecutor Mark Tom discourages the use of the term “defendants” to describe the homeless people he prosecutes in the special court, which has cleared 943 cases so far.

They’re accused of non-felony offenses that people around Oahu complain about every day, such as having a tent in a park, obstructing sidewalks and urinating and defecating in public.

As of last week, 56 people had completed their sentences of community service hours rather than go to jail or face fines they cannot afford.

Community Outreach Court

>> 943: Court cases that have been cleared in 18 months.
>> 84: Total number of “participants;” 56 have fulfilled their court-ordered community service requirements; 23 are in the process; two left the program; three disappeared.
>> 1,561.5: Total community service hours served.
>> 147: Bench warrants cleared.
>> 37: People who moved off the streets and into permanent housing, homeless shelters or with family and friends.
>> 16: Court participants who have gotten jobs.
>> 16: People who have undergone substance abuse assessment or treatment.

Source: Honolulu Prosecutor’s Office

Twenty-three more are on their way, adding up to a total of 1,561.5 hours of cleaning public spaces such as around the Honolulu Zoo — or, for one participant with mobility issues, shredding documents at the Public Defender’s Office.

At the same time, social service agencies direct the participants to a range of services. Sixteen people now have jobs. And 37 moved off the street and into shelters, permanent homes or are living with friends and family. Sixteen underwent substance abuse assessments and or treatment.

Unlike other criminal courts, no one who fails to appear in Community Outreach Court is issued a bench warrant, which would only compound their legal issues.

The program has had two participants drop out, and three disappear.

Welcome to court

On Tuesday, Lendio called Community Outreach Court an opportunity “for people who want to get their lives back together.”

Tom, the deputy prosecutor, then turned to face those seated in the court and said, “We want to welcome you.”

It was difficult at times to tell which attorney was pressing charges and which one was coming to their client’s defense.

Along with Lendio, Tom regularly praised the participants for their progress toward completing their court-ordered community service.

Some of the more serious crimes Lendio presided over Tuesday — such as multiple offenses for driving without a valid license — carry maximum penalties of up to 30 days in jail and fines of $1,000, plus an an additional $37 in court costs.

David Kalu Torres — a 56-year-old, homeless military veteran — was still working off a prior sentence of 56 hours of community service when he stood before Lendio facing two counts of driving without a valid license, a common offense for homeless people who lose their identifications while living in vehicles.

Deputy Public Defender Jerry Villanueva told Lendio that Torres had acquired a bus pass to prevent a repeat violation. Tom added that Torres had completed all but 12 hours of his community service, a feat for which Lendio congratulated him.

“Bus pass is good,” she told Torres. “Yes, it is,” he answered.

The judge then dismissed one count against Torres and sentenced him to another 20 hours of community service after he pleaded no contest to driving without a valid license.

Clearing the docket

Villanueva, 60, whose close-cropped hair is speckled in gray, and the skinny, baby-faced Tom, 36, are unusual court adversaries.

Like their bosses who created Community Outreach Court that began in January 2017 — Honolulu Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro and Public Defender Jack Tonaki, along with Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald — Villanueva and Tom said they are working together to clear the court docket of nonviolent offenses while assisted by social service workers.

Villanueva, a 30-year veteran of the Public Defender’s office, is the supervising attorney for the District Court Division and has previously handled murder trials.

“God, we’ve gotta do something to help the people on our streets,” Villanueva said in a busy and cramped corridor inside the court house. “This is working. We’re getting people help.”

Tom, the son of former state Rep. Terrance Tom, started in the Honolulu Prosecutor’s Office in 2010. He then moved to the Illinois State Attorney’s Office where he prosecuted drug trafficking and gang violence cases before returning home four years ago and helped write legislation that got Community Outreach Court funded by the state after a pilot project based on a federal grant.

Prosecuting homeless defendants — or “participants” as Tom prefers — for nonviolent offenses “is not glamorous,” he said.

Instead, Tom said, it’s satisfying in a much different way.

“You really feel like you’re helping these people,” Tom said. “They’re just so far in the hole that they need a chance. But they’re still taking responsibility. They’re not saying, ‘Give me a free pass.’”

Tom held two stacks of papers in his hands. One was for 66 typical District Court defendants appearing before Judge Lendio later in the day.

The other — which was twice as thick — was paperwork for just the nine people he was about to deal with in Community Outreach Court.

As the morning began, Lendio told all of the people in her packed courtroom that the docket was filled with more than 100 traditional defendants for traffic arraignment, criminal arraignment, traffic infractions and traffic trials in Wahiawa District Court.

As the accused continued to file into the court room, Lendio began the morning by saying, “We have a very long hearing calendar this morning. We’ll try to do our best.”

Steps forward

Community Outreach Court started in District Court downtown, where it’s still held on the second and fourth Thursdays of each month, including next week. In December it expanded to Wahiawa District Court on the third Tuesday of each month, which makes it easier for participants from the area to appear in court, and to serve their community service hours where they commit their violations.

Villanueva and Tom handle all of the cases downtown and in Wahiawa.

Discussions are underway to add a third Community Outreach Court somewhere on the Leeward side.

Just before Community Outreach Court began Tuesday, former Honolulu police officer Joseph Acosta sat on a bench outside the court room in a busy hallway, directly across from people getting ready to face Judge Lendio.

Acosta is now working with many of the Community Outreach Court participants after he and his brother, Phil, and their family formed the nonprofit, homeless organization called ALEA Bridge.

Acosta looked across the hallway and said, “These guys on the bench were guys I was hunting down (as a police officer). They’re the ones running from the police even though their crimes are so small.”

Now the Acosta brothers make sure their homeless clients show up in court, serve out their community service and connect them with homeless organizations also working to get them jobs and even housing.

If none of that happens, Acosta said, getting their cases cleared through Community Outreach Court is still a step forward.

“Each person has their own level of success,” he said. “Just getting them out of the bushes is a success. Otherwise they continue to hide. They don’t look for work. It’s just a constant hide-and-seek.”

Inside the court room, Lendio encouraged one participant, Brandon Christopher Guerrero, who had eight cases before her.

While working on his community service hours, Guerrero also is “supporting his family working two jobs,” Villanueva told the judge.

“Working two jobs?” Lendio said. “I know that’s rough. Good for you.”

But easily the most touching moment Tuesday occurred when Villanueva mentioned the young daughter of one of his clients, Mary Catherine Kaneakua, who had seven cases on Lendio’s docket.

Lendio asked the girl to get out of her seat, approach the bench and stand next to Kaneakua.

“You should be proud of your mom,” Lendio told the girl, who nodded. “She’s working real hard.”

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