Clean slate: Street Outreach Court offers fresh start for those at risk of homelessness

By Jo Mathis

Legal News

Robert Salo walked out of an Ann Arbor courtroom the other day dabbing his tearful eyes with tissue.

"Nobody's ever given me a standing ovation before," he said in the hallway.

Salo hadn't just delivered an Atticus Finch-like speech, or announced a surprising verdict. In fact, Salo had been on that day's docket for a misdemeanor charge.

But the spectators in the Washtenaw County Street Outreach Court were no less impressed with what Salo had told the judge about changing his life, or the fact that his slate was now clean.

"I feel lighter," said Salo, who lives at Our Father's House, a transitional facility in Ypsilanti. "I got no warrants for me now, so I can finally get back on track ... I love that there's a court like this. There's no bars, no cells, no overnights. It's not The Hogback Hilton! Hopefully this will be my last time in court."

The Street Outreach Court (SOC) offers county residents who are homeless or at risk of homelessness the chance to be relieved of unpaid fines, tickets and arrest warrants for non-violent misdemeanors. To qualify, they must have demonstrated a commitment to work with service programs to reduce the recurrence of offending behavior via an "action plan."

Elizabeth Hines, 15th District Court judge for the city of Ann Arbor, came up with the idea of the SOC in 2005, with wide support from the Washtenaw County criminal justice community.

"SOC is a win-win situation," said Hines, who feels honored to preside over it. "The community wins because the illegal behavior stops and from huge savings of taxpayer dollars when expensive days in jail are not necessary. Street Outreach Court participants win when they are treated with respect and given the support they need to help themselves become self-sufficient. They leave court with hope and a fresh start. That's an amazing and rewarding experience not only for them, but for all of us who have the privilege of working in Street Outreach Court."

The SOC meets every other month in the Washtenaw County Annex across the street from the courthouse. The location makes the participants feel more comfortable, and Hines said participants leave with less mistrust of the criminal justice system because they see they can walk into court, handle their problem, and walk out without going to jail.

Noting the hard work each person does with the sponsoring advocacy agency, which usually includes substance abuse or mental health treatment as well as a plan to secure housing and a job, Hines insists SOC is not a free ride.

"Street Outreach Court is a great example of how the courts can work with the community--police, prosecutors, defense attorneys, social service agencies, and others -- to creatively and effectively address homelessness and reduce criminal behavior," said Hines, who was proud when Detroit recently modeled its new street outreach court after Washtenaw County's. "And we did it with no additional funding. Rather than simply process cases the old way and see them again and again, SOC helps people who are homeless and facing non-violent, low- level offenses help themselves get back on their feet and off the street."

District Court Judge Joe Burke explained that the vast and sudden retracting of statewide mental health services resulted in local units of government taking responsibility for the mentally and emotionally ill within their jurisdiction.

Within this population is a vulnerable group of non-violent people who are disproportionately represented in the district court criminal justice system, he said.

"Because many are homeless or possess resources only for bare subsistence, they spend a substantial portion of the day on public streets and parks, where they are ticketed for minor code violations and misdemeanors," he said. "They fail to appear in court for these violations due to their mistrust of authority or because they lack the sophistication to understand the process. Warrants are issued and they are arrested for offenses for which they would have never been incarcerated, even if they had pled guilty. This results in further mistrust, wasting of police resources, and most importantly, wasting of jail space, which has become a very expensive."

SOC relies upon the collaboration of local courts, police, prosecutors, city attorneys and mental health service providers to find a less intimidating venue for this population to come to in order to handle their tickets, Burke said.

"This keeps those tickets from becoming warrants," he said. "Any SOC defendant who is seeking to have his case resolved must agree to abide by a healthy living plan. The result is a population whose special needs are addressed and a criminal justice system that can spend its time with more serious offenders."

Linda Bacigalupi, a jail diversion specialist who is employed by Washtenaw County Community Supports and Treatment Services (CSTS) as a mental health professional, said the SOC is a valuable resource for those trying to get back on their feet, but with no way to pay fines associated with outstanding tickets or court cases.

"It has also been extremely helpful for some individuals who are seriously impaired by their mental illnesses and have a very difficult time navigating the regular court system," she said.

Kisha Miller, 26, of Ypsilanti, stood before Hines in SOC recently as her sponsor noted that she'd been working with Miller for four years now, and that lately, Miller had been making "significant progress," and demonstrated a willingness to make positive changes.

Hines said that she'd talked to staff at Miller's transitional living facility, and that they had positive things to say as well.

Miller told Hines she has been taking her medication and attending group therapy so that she can be a healthy, productive citizen.

"I want to do the right thing," she said,

Hines expressed faith in Miller's action plan and dismissed fines facing her.

"Hopefully that'll give you a big jump," said Hines, smiling.

A few moments later, Miller told The Legal News she couldn't be happier.

"I think it's amazing!" she said. "It's not what I expected a court to be -- which was a place you go to get locked up ... And they clapped for me at the end" she continued. "It was so sweet! I don't want to mess it up. I want to keep moving forward, not step back into the past."

Bacigalupi works in a sub-program of the agency that is specifically targeted to work with mentally ill men and women whose illnesses play a part in their contact with the criminal justice system. This program is known by the courts as JPORT (Justice Project Outreach Team).

JPORT administrator Deb Pippins was involved in the launching of the Street Outreach Court in Washtenaw County because JPORT also has a component of outreach workers who work with homeless adults.

As SOC evolved, JPORT has been a regular participant in filing applications for its clients.

Bacigalupi has trained other community agencies such as the SOS Crisis Center, the Delonis Center, and Staples Family Center on the SOC application process. The SOC centralizes all of the cases and simplifies the process for them.

"Another benefit has been for people who have had very negative experiences in the court system and who are intimidated to all-out frightened of going to court," said Bacigalupi. "The positive, supportive, and easy atmosphere of the SOC has eased the process for them and given them a sense of accomplishment and support that allow for each individual to move forward on his/her unique road of recovery."

Washtenaw County Assistant Public Defender Delphia Simpson calls the SOC "the happiest court."

"Everyone leaves relieved, and able to move forward," she said. "It clears up barriers for people who are homeless or at risk of being homeless."

Ann Savickas, 15th District probation supervisor, says the SOC is a good use of judicial resources and an excellent example of "therapeutic justice." The SOC not only helps those whose charges and fees are absolved, but saves the city money otherwise spent on jail time, she said.

"This court recognizes the huge barriers and challenges this population faces and gives them a way to start fresh," Savickas said.

Roxann Mudry, an intern investigator with the Washtenaw County Public Defender's Office, said she frequently has tears in her eyes during a session of SOC.

"I think it's amazing," said Mudry. "It gives people a big incentive to continue on the right path."

Published: Tue, Jan 22, 2013