Isaiah Kaumana Ruiz — a 23-year-old homeless man from Waimanalo — pleaded no contest Monday to a 3-year-old, single count of having a tent in a public park in an otherwise routine court appearance witnessed by two Windward state legislators and the chief justice of the Hawaii Supreme Court.
What was even more extraordinary is that Ruiz received support from everyone, including Deputy Prosecutor Mark Tom and presiding Judge Darolyn Lendio, who was just about to sentence Ruiz.
At the start of the court session, Lendio addressed Ruiz and the other homeless defendants — called “participants” in Lendio’s special “Community Outreach Court” — and said, “You can relax. We’re all here to support you and assist you.”
Monday represented the first time Community Outreach Court was held on the Windward side, when Kaneohe District Court is otherwise out of session.
The idea began more than two years ago when Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald joined city Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro and Public Defender Jack Tonaki to create Hawaii’s version of a special court aimed specifically at homeless defendants accused of nonviolent, low-level offenses typically connected to homelessness, such as sleeping in a park.
The idea is to help clear minor offenses from an overbooked court calendar and, perhaps more important, connect the “participants” to social service agencies that staff each court session helping the participants find jobs, get back their IDs and a whole array of services including housing.
At the start of Monday’s session, Tom — who said he was proud to be from Kaneohe — faced the participants he was about to prosecute and said, “We’re here to celebrate with you on your accomplishments.”
State Reps. Lisa Kitagawa (D, Kahaluu-Ahuimanu- Kaneohe) and Scot Matayoshi (D, Kaneohe-Maunawili- Kailua) were introduced to applause and sat in the front row.
Tom told the participants that there will be “bumps in the road” toward their graduation from Community Outreach Court.
But Deputy Public Defender Merlinda Garma added that after the participants graduate, “We’re still here for you.”
Lendio continues to preside over the location of the original court sessions in District Court downtown, as well as the subsequent sessions that were created in Wahiawa District Court and the Waianae state public library — in the hours before the library opens for regular use.
The attorneys from the Prosecutor’s and Public Defender’s offices from the start considered themselves a team, not adversaries. The original sessions in all of the various court locations were always handled by Tom, the baby-faced deputy prosecutor, and Jerry Villanueva, supervising attorney for the entire District Court Division, who has decades of experience.
Villanueva has since been freed for his District Court supervisory duties and been replaced by Garma, who appeared in court Monday in ankle-high boots decorated by black and bling.
Posing in photos after Monday’s historic court session, Tom and Garma looked like they were smiling for their high school yearbooks.
Having Community Outreach Court located around Oahu makes it easier for participants to appear — and thereby avoid even more court problems — and let them work off community service sentences in the neighborhoods where they committed their original, nonviolent crimes.
The whole concept — from Judge Lendio’s welcome — is designed to be approachable to a homeless population that more often has negative encounters with law enforcement.
Before Monday’s session began, Recktenwald thanked legislators who financed the idea as a way to address homelessness from the court’s standpoint, along with thanking the social service agencies working to get the participants permanently off the street and on to better lives.
Back inside Lendio’s court room, Ruiz stood in a red T-shirt before the judge.
Lendio began, “E komo mai. Welcome to the Community Outreach Court.”
Lendio told Ruiz that the maximum penalty for having a tent in a public park, a petty misdemeanor, is $500 and 30 days in jail, plus court costs.
She read Ruiz a long list of his rights and acknowledgements and said, “You want to take responsibility, yeah?”
Lendio sentenced him to four hours of community service.
Ruiz was relieved.
“When I heard ‘jail time,’ I wanted to run,” he said later.
On a bench outside of Lendio’s court room sat Ruiz’s auntie Maxine Bunker of Waimanalo.
She said it’s ultimately up to her brother’s son to take the opportunity he’s being given through Community Outreach Court to get off of Waimanalo Beach Park and turn his life around.
Asked about the sentence of four hours of community service on the Windward side, Bunker said, “I love it. It’s a blessing.”
Calvin Ching, deputy chief court administrator, said groups looking for a community service project for Community Outreach Court participants can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.