Hawaii’s most unusual criminal court addressing low-level crimes committed mostly by homeless people has returned from a COVID-19-driven hiatus at a new location along the Leeward Coast to make it easier for people to clear their cases and help reboot their lives.
Since 2017, Oahu’s Community Outreach Court has expanded from Honolulu District Court to Kaneohe District Court and to Wahiawa District Court.
It’s always been the goal to add more locations and take the special court out into the community, where homeless people live, some commit crimes and those who do can work off their community service. But the court sessions that began at the Waianae Public Library in 2018 were derailed in a COVID-19 era that requires social distancing and, ideally, fresh air.
So on Friday, the state Judiciary, District Court Judge Darolyn Lendio, the Honolulu Prosecutor’s Office and the state Public Defender’s Office worked together with Catholic Charities Hawaii to hold the first Community Outreach Court session since March at a new location at the Villages of Maili, a transitional housing program where one of Friday’s 14 defendants lives.
But the people who appear before Lendio — who presided remotely on Friday — are never called defendants. They’re always referred to as “participants” and their inclusion is voluntary as long as they work off their nonviolent, low-level violations in exchange for not having to pay hundreds — sometimes thousands — of dollars in fees, fines and penalties.
Or, as Lendio told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, the participants face “humongous fines that we’ll never collect on because these people have no income.”
They also receive a wide range of assistance that continues even after they finish their community service sentences and graduate from the program, including help getting jobs, permanent housing and the driver’s licenses and IDs they need to get employment and housing.
The Prosecutor’s and Public Defender’s offices are technically adversaries. But in Community Outreach Court they consider themselves a team working together to help the homeless clear their court cases and start anew.
Deputy Prosecutor Mark Tom has been with Community Outreach Court since the beginning and introduced himself to the people who showed up for their Friday appearances by saying, “I’m the prosecutor, but I’m your friend. I’m your friend.”
Later, as the proceedings began, Tom said, “This is the team that’s going to help you get back on your feet.”
“This is really such a unique situation,” Lendio told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser after Friday’s session.
While Community Outreach Court remains on hold in district courts around Oahu, another session is planned for Dec. 18 at the Villages of Maili.
All of the 80 units at the Villages of Maili are full, with 225 residents, according to Catholic Charities Hawaii.
Participants on Friday waited in a children’s playground outside while the indoor proceedings included social distancing and plenty of ventilation, with everyone wearing masks.
“We wanted to make a statement that we haven’t forgotten you guys,” Lendio told the Star-Advertiser. “We’re just coming back in a new way figuring out how … to help you progress your life.”
Lendio was most recently in the news after the Judicial Selection Committee forwarded her name to Gov. David Ige, along with three others, for consideration for a nomination to the Hawaii Supreme Court.
Ige instead selected Circuit Court Judge Todd Eddins, whose nomination faces possible Senate a pproval this week.
Lendio told the Star-Advertiser that she’s happy to continue to oversee Community Outreach Court as a district court judge.
“It’s something that’s very personal to me,” she said. “The question is: What is the legacy I want to leave? And this is a perfect example of the type of legacy I want to leave.”
Lendio started her working life as a field hand for Del Monte Pineapple in Kunia. Her legal career included working for Hawaii Supreme Court Justice Yoshimi Hayashi and serving as director of Honolulu’s Department of the Corporation Counsel, vice president for Legal Affairs and university general counsel for the University of Hawaii System, and interim executive administrator and secretary for the UH Board of Regents.
When COVID-19 forced Community Outreach Court to shut down in March, 244 people had been enrolled and 215 graduated.
They had 2,946 cases cleared from the court docket, completed 4,656 hours of community service and had 533 bench warrants rescinded.
Friday’s 14 participants were responsible for a combined 62 cases.
But Lendio said Community Outreach Court represents “way more than just statistics. You can see the impact we have on people.”
One of them was Princess Naki, 40, who completed 14 hours of community service office work and landscaping, and graduated from the program on Friday.
She and her boyfriend, John Anduha, 47, had been living at Maili Beach Park, and Anduha completed his Community Outreach Court community service sentence in February.
Both still need help getting their driver’s licenses so they can get jobs and permanent housing. She wants to drive a Handi-Van and he wants to go into construction and join a trade union.
“We just want to be stable,” Anduha said.
“I definitely, definitely advocate for this program,” Naki told the Star-Advertiser after her final court appearance. “It helped us and it’s a big weight off of our shoulder.”
But in a reminder of how COVID-19 may affect the future of Community Outreach Court, Tom began high-fiving Naki as she stood before a virtual Judge Lendio.
“Use your hand sanitizer!” Lendio admonished. “Stop high-fiving over there.”
Lendio then offered Naki a “virtual hug” and told her:
“You’re all pau. Congratulations. … You’re going to clear your record today.”