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Homeless outreach court makes progress, but funding needed

In its first two years of existence, Oahu’s Community Outreach Court that addresses minor, nonviolent crimes committed by homeless “participants” “has made significant progress,” Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald wrote in a report to the state Legislature.

The court has rapidly expanded from District Court downtown — where it started in July 2017 — to Wahiawa District Court to the Waianae Public Library to Kaneohe District Court last June.

Participants who voluntarily enroll in the program — with the agreement of the city’s Prosecutor Office and state Public Defender’s Office — generally appear each month to give the judge an update on their progress.

As of September, 101 court sessions have been held — not only to hold homeless people accountable for their crimes, but to connect them with nonprofit social service agencies that help with a wide range of issues including substance abuse treatment, assistance getting government-issued IDs and housing.

And also as of September, 201 “participants” — as they’re always referred to in Community Outreach Court — enrolled in the program, Recktenwald wrote, and the court was able to clear 2,321 cases.

At the same time, the participants were ordered to perform 3,966 hours of community service.

The idea is to sentence participants to community service in the neighborhoods where they committed their original offenses.

But in order to expand the concept further — especially to the neighbor islands — Recktenwald wrote in his report to the Legislature that unspecified funding is needed.

The state judiciary has spent $126,364 for administration and operations; the Office of the Public Defender another $154,000 for three permanent positions; and $165,404 went for two permanent positions for the Prosecutor’s Office.

“Staff shortage continues to be the main challenge,” Recktenwald wrote. “The sustainability and further expansion of the mobile COC program will be dependent upon the availability and provision of these resources.”

First Circuit Deputy Chief Court Administrator Calvin Ching hosted a meeting about Oahu’s Community Outreach Court with representatives of neighbor island courts last summer “in response to the growing interest in the COC from the neighbor islands,” Recktenwald wrote. “The expansion to neighbor islands may increase the COC’s capacity to collaborate with other Circuits to address cases from other jurisdictions and help individuals who have outstanding cases from more than one Circuit.”

The idea began in San Diego as “Homeless Court” in 1989 and has since expanded to 13 states, Recktenwald wrote.

In his report, Recktenwald told the stories of seven unidentified participants who were on different paths but found success after enrolling in Community Outreach Court. They included:

>> A male participant completed a substance abuse assessment test at Hina Mauka and reunited with his family, including his father who attended every one of his son’s Community Outreach Court appearances. The man is now working in construction doing fencing and drywall work.

>> A husband and wife both graduated from the program and moved into the city’s Hale Mauliola transitional shelter on Sand Island.

>> Another homeless man was working on completing his court requirements and moved back with his family. He was assisted by the Institute for Human Services, which helped him get his state ID.

Overall, Recktenwald wrote, Community Outreach Court participants have had many successes, large and small:

>> 1,527 driver’s license “stoppers” were “lifted.”

>> 422 bench warrants were recalled.

>> 27 participants obtained driver’s licenses and permits.

>> 49 people were housed, including 40 who obtained housing on their own.

>> 22 participants were sheltered, including 11 who got into shelters on their own.

>> 33 moved in with family or friends.

>> 42 people got jobs, including 39 who found employment without help.

>> 17 people received substance abuse treatment.

In a letter attached to Recktenwald’s report to the Legislature, state Public Defender Jack Tonaki wrote:

“We are looking forward to expanding this specialty court beyond the locations we are currently serving. We believe this will encourage more individuals to attend their court dates without having the fear of serving jail time. Expanding to more locations will also increase awareness of the program to reach out to individuals who need the services in other communities.”

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