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California Hotel resident facing eviction.

By Paul Boden

The current proliferation of separate court systems often referred to as “restorative justice” within the US criminal justice system tells us all we need to know about how government is addressing the health care and housing needs of America’s poor.

Because many poor, mentally ill, or unhoused or drug addicted people get arrested, the courts became more and more overcrowded with what was deemed “social issues.”  The response was to create separate systems for the administration of these cases.  Ironically, these Substance Abuse Courts, Mental Health Courts and, most recently, Homeless Courts all coincide with drastic reductions in State and Federal government funding of community based treatment and housing programs.  In one classic example, the King County Court system in the state of Washington established Mental Health Courts while at the same time the state cut 6 million dollars in community based mental health programs.

This is not an isolated incident.  It has become a national trend. While the social service branches of government have divested themselves of responsibility to fulfill their initial mandates, the branch of government charged with incarceration and rehabilitation has created a whole new role for itself, that of an access point to treatment, social workers and shelter services. In 1997 only two Mental Health Courts existed in the United States.  Today we have over 100.  It is ironic that today the three largest residential mental health facilities in the US are the Los Angeles County jail, Cook County jail (Chicago) and Rikers Island (NYC)!  Mentally ill jail inmates are 2.5 times more likely to have been homeless prior to incarceration as all other inmates.

The criminal justice system is ill equipped to address the social issues being dumped on its courtroom floors, so now we are getting these behavioral courts that all come with a special twist:  no option to plead “Not Guilty.”    Homeless Courts are the newest incarnation of these special courts.

Homeless Courts are not courts as most people understand courts to be.  In fact they are just the opposite. Defendants in homeless courts are presumed guilty and MUST plead guilty in order to avail themselves of whatever services are to be offered through the courts.  Due process, anyone?

“Defendants” are brought in for such “crimes” as sleeping, camping, disturbing the contents of a container (i.e. going through trash for food or recyclables), panhandling, being in a park after hours (parks that until a very short time ago were open 24 hours and used to be considered Public Space), jaywalking, loitering, sitting or lying on a sidewalk and, of course, the Grande Dame of egregious offenses committed by homeless people, peeing and defecating.  Once they plead “guilty,” they are then assigned to services or community service (in lieu of jail or fines) as an alternative sentence handed down by the benevolent court.

In San Francisco  and Los Angeles, though, attorneys doing citation defense have won dismissal of all charges in over 80% of the cases  they represented.   In legal terms, over 80% have been found NOT guilty of the original charges against them.

In other words, local governments are creating two-tiered court systems that are determined by economic status.  There are criminal courts for people who can afford attorneys or have access to a public defender.  They recognize due process.  And now there are behavioral courts for people who cannot afford attorneys and have no access to a public defender.   They do not recognize due process.

This separation that sends poor people who are homeless or mentally ill to special “courts” where they must plead guilty in order to obtain the services they so desperately need violates the very foundation of our criminal justice system.

 Paul Boden is the Executive Director of Western Regional Advocacy Project.

Dos Rios

    In Memory of Michael Tinius

the rivers
    like wild seams through the city

where our desires are made known
    or rather necessities

a tribe
    in the city’s midst robed
in cheap fabric, mermen, mermaids, poor for sure 

as if any human could be

a word ancient spoken
    before “Man” itself: “home”

we anchor each body builds around itself

and so by the rivers
    on the city dump at 20th and C streets

small cooking fires the luxury of smoke
drinking beer and tea, trading monikers
“Gremlin,” say, or “Monkey,”
tents brittle: ultraviolet
and “Gremlin” killed on the levee
because someone came out there from the city, a nobody
to knife someone like him and he tried to stop it
the poppies flaring in the grass
the willows leafing out it was May
on the graveled levee near the railroad bridge
the trestle you can brave and balance walk

waste and trash and neatly stacked canned food
rousted out, dumpster, snapshot
    the baby on the lawn, a door partly seen
“black and whites” the police cruisers
“Cat Man” keeps a cat
who hunts wild birds by the riverside
eases feral by the riverside

“Cat Man” calls his name and home

--Cathleen Williams


This article originated in the People's Tribune
PO Box 3524, Chicago, IL 60654, 773-486-3551,
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