The San Diego Homeless Court Program (HCP) is a special Superior Court session for homeless defendants — convened in a homeless shelter — to resolve outstanding misdemeanor offenses and warrants. To counteract the effect of criminal cases pushing homeless defendants further outside society, the HCP combines a progressive plea bargain system, alternative sentencing structure, assurance of “no custody,” and proof of program activities to address a full range of misdemeanor cases. Each month, a local homeless service agency hosts a special Superior Court session. The HCP builds on partnerships between the court, prosecutor, public defender, and local service agencies to help resolve the problems that homelessness represents with practical and effective solutions. We believe that when homeless participants work with agency representatives to identify and overcome the causes of their homelessness, they are in a stronger position to successfully comply with court orders.
The Homeless Court Program Is a Voluntary Program
Homeless participants voluntarily sign up for the HCP through their Homeless Service Agency. If a participant signs up and later decided to challenge his case though a trial or motion, the case is set for a certain date in the San Diego Superior Courthouse. Homeless Court Program participants are entitled to all protections afforded by due process of law.
The Homeless Court Program Addresses a Full Range of Misdemeanor Offenses
The HCP addresses a broad spectrum of misdemeanor offenses including jaywalking, charges of being under the influence of a controlled substance, theft, and driving under the influence. Participants who appear in Homeless Court with serious misdemeanor cases submit proof of completion of significant program activities. In many circumstances, the participant's program activities voluntarily exceed the demands a court might order for treatment for low term felony cases.
The Homeless Court Program Uses a Progressive Plea Bargain System
The HCP offers a different plea structure from the traditional court proceeding. The HCP plea agreement responds to the cases or offenses the homeless participants receive due to their condition and status of living on the streets. Additionally, the HCP agreement acknowledges the efforts the participants undertake to change their lives before their appearance in court. The plea agreement recognizes the participants have completed the court order before the court imposes a sentence. Here, participants are able to participate in program activities without the threat of custody or a larger fine.
The Homeless Court Program Employs Alternative Sentencing
Local homeless shelters are the gateway and guide for participants to enter and succeed in Homeless Court. Homeless persons who want to appear in Homeless Court must sign up through one of a number of local agencies and participate in approved program activities. While the HCP “sentences” a participant to activities in the participant’s Homeless Service Agency program, the sentence is actually completed prior to when the participant stands before the judge. The HCP gives “credit for time served” for the participant’s accomplishments in shelter activities. These activities include life-skills, chemical dependency or AA/NA meetings, computer and literacy classes, training or searching for employment, medical care (physical and mental), and counseling. These activities replace the traditional court sentence options of fines, public work service, and custody. The alternative sentencing structure is not coercive or punitive in nature, but rather designed to address the underlying causes of a person’s homelessness and recognize the person’s efforts to make changes to improve his or her life.
No One Goes into Custody at Homeless Court
The HCP key players (judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and homeless shelter/service agencies) agree, No one goes into custody against his or her will. This does not mean that the prosecution gives up its power to ask for custody, nor does the court relinquish its authority to incarcerate. Rather, this agreement acknowledges both that the participants have committed offenses and have met court requirements through their work in their programs. This agreement respects the relationship and trust the homeless service agencies hold with the participants who appear before the HCP and acknowledges that time spent working with these agencies is equivalent to, and more constructive than, “time” spent in custody.
Local homeless service agencies are the gateway and guide for participants to enter and succeed in Homeless Court. Homeless persons who want to appear in Homeless Court must sign up through one of a number of local agencies and participate in approved program activities.