The original vision for Oahu’s Community Outreach Court finally became reality on Friday when District Court Judge Darolyn Lendio held court at the Waianae Public Library and purposely sat at a plastic folding table — covered in black cloth — at eye level with the court’s two homeless defendants, who are always referred to as “participants.”
“Usually I’m, like, above them,” Lendio said, addressing the new arrangement to a roomful of Judiciary staff members, a deputy prosecutor, deputy public defender, sheriff’s deputies, a full court staff and social workers who sat ready to help the two participants — a homeless, formerly crystal meth-addicted married couple with four boys who had been living illegally in Maili Beach Park beginning in 2014.
The room is normally used for community meetings and workshops. But starting with Friday’s makeshift schedule, it will be reserved every fourth Friday of the month for court sessions to clear a clogged docket packed with low-level, nonviolent offenses committed by homeless people around the Leeward Coast.
They typically are cited for violations such as sleeping in public parks, pitching tents in parks or driving without a valid license and resolve their cases, potential jail times and fines by working off community service.
“So excited to be here,” said Lendio, who grew up nearby in . “It is an honor. … It’s a very exciting day for me.”
Perhaps more important than clearing cases, Community Outreach Court offers a range of social service assistance along the way — everything from jobs to substance abuse treatment to housing.
Even when Lendio presides over Community Outreach Court sessions in District Court on Alakea Street or in Wahiawa’s District Court, the proceedings are unlike a typical criminal proceeding.
Deputy Prosecutor Mark Tom and Deputy Public Defender Jerry Villanueva consider themselves a team working together to get the people they prosecute and defend on a different, positive path.
After Lendio addressed the court on Friday, Tom turned to the couple he was about to prosecute — Roy Rogers and Charisse Siaosi — and said, “We are so happy to have you guys here. … We’re going to be there with you every step.”
To which Roy Rogers shouted from a plastic chair, “thank you!”
Community Outreach Court is the 19-month-old, brainchild of Honolulu Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro and Public Defender Jack Tonaki, along with Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald.
It started in Honolulu District Court in January 2017 but always was designed to be held outside of a traditional court house to make it less intimidating for the participants, easier for them to show up, and to encourage them to accept offers of help — while serving their community service sentences where they live.
“We want them to get their lives turned around,” said Calvin Ching, the Judiciary’s deputy chief court administrator, who attended Friday’s session.
The program continues to deliver results that are far more positive than negative.
The Judiciary has lost contact with eight participants. But 92 others have cleared 1,089 cases as of August.
And more than half of them — 57 — have completed 1,748.5 hours of community service, along with 27 others who are still in the program and finishing their sentences.
Along the way, 16 participants found jobs; 14 got driver’s licenses and driver’s permits, which are often needed for jobs or permanent housing; 21 were housed; 13 were placed in shelters; and 12 more moved in with families or friends.
So far, Community Outreach Court “has exceeded our expectations,” said Tonaki, who sat in the back of Lendio’s court room on Friday. “It’s a success.”
The Hawaii Judiciary is not the first to create a special court to address low-level crimes committed by the homeless.
Some mainland jurisdictions now hold similar sessions in places such as urban strip malls and storefronts. But Tonaki and Ching believe Honolulu may be the first place where court is now conducted in public spaces in rural communities, such as the Waianae Public Library.
Next year, the Judiciary hopes to conduct Community Outreach Court in Honolulu, Wahiawa and Windward Oahu, Ching said.
Making Community Outreach Court less intimidating creates a better chance that homeless participants will answer for their crimes and actually accept help for the issues underlying their homelessness, said Joseph Acosta, a former Honolulu police offer who used to track down homeless people running from offenses.
Acosta and his brother, Phil, and their family have since formed the nonprofit, homeless organization called ALEA Bridge.
“This is a fresh start for the participants,” said Joseph Acosta, who stood along a wall during Friday’s inaugural court session at the Waianae Public Library.
He called the Judiciary’s efforts “a key part” of what is needed to reduce Oahu’s overall homeless problem.
“Otherwise, it’s just a revolving door,” Acosta said. “You see guys with $2,000, $3,000 in fines. I can’t pay that. They’re just gonna hide.”
On Friday, five participants were scheduled to attend: But one came down with a case of gout. Another was still undergoing a background check. And the third was starting his first day at work at a new job, Villanueva told Lendio.
“That’s wonderful news,” Lendio responded. “That’s exciting.”
Roy Rogers Siaosi stood in front of Lendio in a white T-shirt, camouflage shorts, a rubber slipper on his left foot and nothing on his right.
Siaosi, a 40-year-old Army brat of Samoan descent, was born in Fort Campbell, Ky. and has a ninth-grade education. He moved to the Leeward Coast to be near his maternal grandparents and developed an addiction to crystal meth, or “ice,” along the way.
After setting up shop in Maili Beach Park in 2014 with his wife and their four boys, the couple individually faced maximum sentences of months in jail and thousands of dollars in fines for 11 offenses each: for violating park closure hours, having animals in a park and for pitching tents in Maili Beach Park, Villanueva said.
Charisse Siaosi also faced a count of driving without a valid license after getting in an accident in a borrowed car.
Roy Rogers Siaosi on Friday pleaded no contest to a single count of violating park closure hours and agreed to a sentence of four hours of community service.
Charisse Siaosi, 35, was born and raised in the Papakolea Hawaiian Homestead and has a high school degree.
In her separate appearance before Lendio, Charisse Siaosi pleaded no contest to driving without a valid license and was sentenced to eight hours of community service.
They have to reappear before Judge Lendio next month for an update. Their participation in Community Outreach Court also requires them to fulfill their sentences by January.
Neither has a job nor a driver’s license. And they’re still homeless, living in Waianae, with their boys.
But following Friday’s court appearances, they told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that they are now both clean and sober, are dreaming of new lives and new relationships with their sons: a 12-year-old; 14-year-old twins and a 15-year-old sophomore who attend Waianae Intermediate School and Waianae High School.
As Charisse Siaosi cried, her husband said their boys never wanted to come home at night. But the family dynamic is healthier now that the couple no longer use “ice.”
Now they’re both planning to apply for drivers’ licenses, get jobs and housing.
And most of all, Roy Rogers Siaosi is determined to complete his general education degree before his oldest boy earns his high school diploma in two years.
“I don’t want my son to graduate before me,” Roy Rogers Siaosi said. “I told my son, ‘I know I’m 40 but you’re not going to graduate before me.’”
The couple have appeared in court on criminal charges before. But Roy Rogers Siaosi said it was nothing like Friday’s experience, which ended with Judge Lendio hugging both of them.
“We’re very grateful and thankful,” Charisse Siaosi said.
The couple’s hope for a new future also has reinforced their faith in God, said Roy Rogers Siaosi, the son of a preacher.
“When everything’s going good, I forget God,” Roy Rogers Siaosi said. “When thing’s are going bad, I remember God. Now it’s an everyday thing.”