Steve Binder’s Homeless Court Program (HCP) tailors the criminal justice system to the special needs of the homeless. HCP helps prosecutors and judges transform fines and jail time for misdemeanors into feasible sentences that contribute to the clients’ rehabilitation: life-skills classes, chemical dependency meetings, computer training or literacy classes, employment training, counseling, or volunteer work with service agencies. Instead of being further marginalized by a full range of misdemeanor cases, homeless participants are empowered by their own steps toward reintegration into society.
The New Idea
Through the Homeless Court Program (HCP) Steve Binder is making the criminal justice system accessible to the homeless and changing the system’s response to them from a punitive one to one that is solutions oriented. Steve’s vision is for officers of the court to take a proactive, collaborative role in helping people overcome the problems that led them to become homeless. Steve saw that by joining forces with citizen sector organizations, judges could help solve the root causes of homelessness, prosecutors and district attorneys could focus on positive outcomes, and public defenders could help their clients move forward to achieve self-reliance. His insight is to make the criminal justice system an ally to the individual who is homeless and a partner to the organizations that support their rehabilitation. He designed the Homeless Court Program to encourage homeless individuals to enroll in and take full advantage of the health, education, and social services offered in their community.
As a public defender, Steve realized that homeless individuals are caught in a vicious circle: with nowhere to go for food, shelter and comfort, they sleep on the streets and commit various offenses that are viewed as a public nuisance. They receive numerous citations for public nuisance offenses, “crimes,” which carry the threat of custody. Steve’s innovation with the HCP is for participation in community-based treatment or services to replace traditional sanctions such as fines, public work service, and custody. The HCP focus is to remove the traditional court sanctions that punish the symptoms of homelessness with program activities that provide a homeless person opportunities to achieve employability and economic independence. He created a way for the courts, the legal system, and community-based organizations to work together to support the aspirations and rehabilitation of homeless individuals.
Steve’s idea, the Homeless Court Program, brings the court to the homeless shelter, removes the threat of incarceration for misdemeanor offenses, and engages case workers and other service providers as advocates for their clients. Because all Homeless Court Program clients actively participate in education, job-training, chemical dependency, and other programs, the program positions community-based organizations as strategic partners in the homeless person’s return to full economic citizenship. The courts, prosecutors, and public defenders reinforce the role of the social service system in helping the person overcome the underlying causes of their homelessness.
The current legal system structure does not contribute to the rehabilitation of the homeless, but rather pushes them further into marginalized lives. Resolution of outstanding misdemeanor criminal cases is a fundamental need for homeless people. In 1988, at the conclusion of the first Stand Down in San Diego (an annual three-day tent community providing comprehensive services for homeless veterans), many participants stated that their greatest need was to resolve outstanding bench warrants.
Nearly 600,000 Americans are homeless. Referring to the increasing criminalization of homelessness, the National Coalition for the Homeless notes, “These practices exact enormous economic, social, political and individual costs and do nothing to prevent and end the homelessness that plagues individuals nationwide.” It is not unusual for a homeless person to have a pocket full of twenty citations; many of these are for illegal lodging, riding public transportation without fare, and/or drinking or urinating in public. Individuals with outstanding warrants can’t get jobs or housing. Unable to secure jobs or housing and move on with their lives, they face continued poverty, undignified and unhealthy living conditions, and despair.
The homeless fear presenting themselves in the traditional court setting, where they may be assessed fines they cannot pay or ordered into custody. After serving their time in custody the homeless defendant is released to the streets. On a first conviction for being “under the influence of a controlled substance,” a defendant faces a mandatory 90 days in custody or enrollment in a program that takes several months to complete. The traditional court sentence for a municipal code violation is a US$300 fine or six days in custody. These penalties prevent homeless individuals from participating in literacy or GED classes, job training, chemical dependency programs, or availing themselves of other services they need to regain self-sufficiency. If they are staying at a shelter, they lose their bed; if they’re saving for a deposit on an apartment, the fines wipe out their savings. A stay in local jail costs about twice as much as a stay in a community-based shelter.
Through the Homeless Court Program, clients enroll in a shelter program and start a four-week process that concludes with a court hearing. Each month, staff from the public defender’s and city attorney’s offices, various shelters, and the court carry out a series of steps which culminate in the HCP hearing. The Office of the Public Defender visits local shelters and service agencies to explain the program’s purpose and process, and to meet the case managers and their clients. The clients proactively surrender themselves to the courts. This builds in an immediate protection, as the court knows there is a lawyer supporting this citizen, and the individual is working with a homeless assistance agency to regain personal independence. Homeless Court takes place within the shelter agencies where homeless clients feel comfortable and supported. The agency and defender put together a case to show that the client is making progress. Having this information documented and presented to prosecution before the HCP hearing helps the public defender and the prosecution arrive at a constructive sentence that does not involve a fine or jail time. The HCP sentence gives “credit for time served” in homeless service agency activities.
All referrals to the HCP come from shelters and service providers, not the police or the courts. Each assistance agency sets its own referral criteria, but the clients must have participated in self-help or recovery programs, so the homeless court is a major step on the path back to independence. Once a month, the HCP gives the referrals it has received to the prosecutor and the court. Clients come to the Homeless Court twice, for a counseling session and court hearing. They get involved in their own defense by bringing advocacy letters, documentation of their program activities, and other evidence in their favor. Often the participant’s program activities exceed the course of treatment a court might order. The HCP works closely with all parties—the client, the local agencies, the public defender, the district attorney’s office and the court.
When Homeless Court is in session, judges and clerks hold court in the shelters where the homeless reside. It is not difficult to get judges on board because, Steve believes, they became judges to have a positive impact on society. One judge exclaimed, “This is the most fun I’ve had as a judge.” Early on, Steve engaged the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court for the State of California in promoting the Homeless Court Program. The chief justice shared his experience in a training video and joined Steve at conferences to help the program spread. Steve’s national replication partner, the American Bar Association (ABA) Commission on Homelessness and Poverty published the HCP how-to manual (2002), an ABA resolution supporting the HCP (2003) and a national conference (2004). Steve prepared, “Taking the Court to the Streets,” and a companion video as well. Steve works with the commission to provide training and consultation for HCP adopters in workshops, on-site visits, via conference calls, and by hosting visitors to San Diego. At the annual Stand Down in San Diego, prospective adopters observe the program and receive free training. Homeless Courts have been established throughout California (14 active and 7 in development, one third of the states courts), and in Albuquerque, Denver, Minneapolis, Salt Lake City, Sarasota, Tucson, and Vancouver, Washington. Sixteen cities are considering the program. In 2006, Ann Arbor, Seattle, Phoenix, and Reno opened homeless courts. The ABA supports Steve’s travel and HCP publications. Communities cover the cost of the technical assistance they receive. Steve is forming a strategic partnership with a national service provider, the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, which was recently awarded a Veterans Administration grant to collaborate with the ABA to promote replication of the HCP at Stand Down events across the U.S.
The Homeless Court Program in San Diego is the flagship program. Steve spends 80 percent of his time spreading the HCP program and 20 percent of his time in San Diego, where he is personally involved in the Homeless Court and is setting up a new HCP in San Diego’s North County. The North County HCP resolved 647 cases during its first year. By doing this “one more program from scratch,” he will test all of the components again and document the steps for a new manual. He also plans to produce a Shelter Toolkit. Steve is establishing a national association of 20 to 30 members to support expansion and select a national advisory board. Steve plans to establish the Homeless Education Project, an independent 501(c)(3) organization, to foster further replication of the HCP, track outcomes, and disseminate best practices.
Steve’s grandfather came to America from Poland. A homeless vagabond, he “rode the rails” from New York to Flint, Michigan, and was arrested for vagrancy a few times. Once settled, he established a furniture business that Steve’s father, a WWII veteran, later reorganized and ran. Steve was born and raised in Flint. If the City of Flint had a slogan it was, “what’s good for General Motors is good for Flint and the country.” Framed and hanging in his office is a photo essay from the Flint Journal entitled, “I’d like to work in the shop.” This article pictures five high school graduates and their dreams for the future. Unfortunately, Flint is no longer called “Buick City,” and General Motors has all but abandoned the city. In junior high, when Steve’s class visited a homeless shelter, he saw that people in his hometown were experiencing hardship. This lesson and the decay of his hometown, taught him the battles for life’s success are many and worth the effort.
In 1989, when Steve began practicing law, he was assigned to counsel misdemeanor defendants in the arraignment court of the County of San Diego. One prominent group of defendants was from the homeless population. Steve listened to the homeless defendants and saw that they struggled with problems the criminal justice system ignored: mental illness, substance abuse, and joblessness. Charged with a variety of nuisance offenses, they’d be sentenced to fines they couldn’t pay and conditions that impeded their ability to participate in society.
When Steve learned about the Stand Down event for the homeless, participants told him their most pressing issue was outstanding warrants. A light bulb went off: establish a court for the homeless. Steve dedicated himself to making the idea a reality, finding time outside his regular caseload to make it happen. Since then, the annual Stand Down has expanded from veterans-only monthly sessions to events open to all homeless people. Steve developed the HCP model and initially spread it to cities in the West and Southwest as a model for community change. Today, there are Homeless Courts in 24 cities, and more are being planned. In 2004, the American Bar Association worked with Steve to convene a national conference on homeless courts. Steve is Chair of the ABA’s Commission on Homelessness and Poverty. Past ABA chair William Hoch notes, “In fact, all of the of the homeless courts across the country trace their roots to Steve, as the successful program he created in San Diego remains the model, and the resource materials and technical assistance he provides are the necessary tools for successful replication.”