Community Court at Bud Clark Commons a good fit for low-level crimes – when defendants show up, that is

By Peter Korn, Portland Tribune, March 28, 2013

Community Court at Bud Clark CommonsTen months ago Multnomah County opened the nation’s first court set in a homeless facility. Nobody showed up.

In what court authorities around the country labeled a potential breakthrough experiment, Multnomah County’s Community Court last year moved its Friday afternoon operation to Bud Clark Commons.

The court deals mostly with low-level citation crimes such as drinking in public and small thefts. Many of the accused are homeless. The hope was that defendants might be more willing to show up for their court dates if court were held in a facility where many of the defendants spend their daytime hours.

The second week the court was in session, one defendant showed up, out of 16 who had been issued citations and ordered to appear.

Last Friday, 65 people were ordered to appear at the Bud Clark Commons Community Court and 21 did so.

BCC mapDoreen Binder, executive director of Bud Clark Commons and the driving force behind the new court, says that’s progress. And, Binder says, the progress is best measured not by how many accused offenders actually make their court date, but by what happens to those who do.

Of the 15 who appeared in court two weeks ago, five agreed to perform community service and one chose to take his case to a full trial. Three opted to work with social workers to get treatment for addictions or attend groups to help them deal with the problems that have played a role in their homelessness. Six had returned to the court after completing work with social service agencies.

Those last nine, according to Binder, are the reason it makes sense to hold court in a facility that serves the homeless.

“We’re trying to turn the court into an entryway into services rather than something people view as a punitive institution,” Binder says.

Still, the fact that only about one in three defendants makes their court appearance shows there is still work to be done. Failure-to-appear rates for Community Court have long been a problem, though nobody can say exactly how large a problem since Multnomah County court officials don’t keep records on appearance rates.

The penalty for failing to appear can be a fine which many never pay, knowing they won’t be sent to jail anyway. At Bud Clark Commons, many of those who fail to appear are simply placed on the next week’s docket. Some are scheduled week after week and never appear. But Larry Turner, engagement director for Transition Projects, which runs the day facility, thinks holding the court at Bud Clark Commons gives him an opportunity to increase the appearance rate. In fact, he knows it does.

At Bud Clark Commons homeless men and women can use computers, do their laundry, take showers and connect with social service agencies. On a typical afternoon, dozens will be seated in the main lobby, waiting their turn or just hanging out. Every Wednesday Turner gets the docket for the Friday Community Court, which gives him two days to spot the familiar faces of those he knows are supposed to appear, or who failed to appear the week before.

When Turner finds them, he tries to persuade them to show up on Friday. He’s armed with a couple of convincing arguments. One section of Bud Clark Commons has overnight beds for the homeless. Four of those beds are reserved for people who have made their court appearances. On a Friday afternoon, a homeless man can go straight from his court appearance to one of those beds.

Turner’s bigger pitch has to do with longer term housing. All of the social services offered at Bud Clark Commons are aimed at getting homeless people off the street and into permanent subsidized apartments throughout the city. For some, the first step is an addiction recovery program, for others it might be mental health treatment.

But people with outstanding warrants and fines cannot legally be placed in those apartments. Which is why Community Court judges are willing to waive fines if an offender agrees to perform substitute community service or begin drug treatment.

Still, getting those defendants to court is an uphill battle. Turner says he can predict fairly well who will appear and who won’t. The most chronic offenders with multiple prior arrests for nuisance crimes rarely show up, he says.

“They know it’s just going to be a fine,” he says. “They’ll get picked up again. They’re always drinking, always loitering, because they know the most that can happen is a fine.”

A fine that likely will never be paid, according to Turner.

But, Turner says, those among the homeless who have been issued their first citations for drinking in public or small thefts are more likely to show up for court dates. Which, he says, makes a strong case for doing everything possible to get them into court before they become chronic offenders who never show up.

What Turner would like to do is begin an outreach program that would allow him to send social workers, possibly Bud Clark mentors, to search the streets for the people on each week’s docket and persuade them to come to court on Friday.

“Everybody knows where they are,” Turner says.

Training those mentors would take a little money that Transitions Projects can’t spare. But Turner remains optimistic about the community court program’s future.

“The court is still in its infancy,” Turner says. “It’s only been nine months. For people to expect this court to make drastic changes in people’s lives in nine months is expecting a miracle. But I believe with continuity, and the more familiar people get, the longer it happens, the more success we’re going to have.”

Multnomah County prosecutor Laurie Abraham says the still-high failure-to-appear rate doesn’t mean the community court isn’t working.

“Maybe it’s not getting a lot of people into housing and drug and alcohol treatment, but it is getting a few,” Abraham says. “Even when you get a few you save the criminal justice system a lot of money.”

Criminal justice officials around the country will be watching, says Julius Lang, director of technical assistance for the nonprofit Center for Court Innovation in New York City.

“It’s turning the paradigm on its head,” Lang says of the Bud Clark Commons approach of bringing the court to the defendants. “What we need is evidence of the impact that Bud Clark is having. Once we have a more complete story to tell I think it will be a very compelling example.”

At the Bud Clark Commons Community Court, about 1 in 3 defendants shows up. At Community Court in Hartford, Conn., better than 9 in 10 do.

The Bud Clark Commons Community Court experiment is intended to lower a historically high failure-to-appear rate. But in Hartford, Conn., tackling time, rather than place, is proving much more effective.

In Multnomah County, a police officer issues a citation for a court date that is usually two to four weeks away. In Hartford, no more than two days lapse between when police issue a citation and the court date.

“The quicker you get them here, the better it is,” says Hartford Community Court Judge Raymond Norko, who suggests Portland should at least attempt to have court dates the same week as citations are issued.

A shorter turnaround time makes sense, says Binder, the Bud Clark Commons executive director. “These are people who, some are sleeping on the streets. It’s almost impossible (for them) to remember dates,” she says.

The Hartford court, which is in session five days a week, does more than shorten the time between citation and court appearance. Every afternoon the court sends the next day’s docket to the homeless shelters in town. Shelter staff members check who in their facility is scheduled to appear in court, and then accompany clients to the courtroom.

Multnomah County prosecutor Abraham says “logistics” have made it impossible to shorten the time between citations and court dates here. Police officers have to get their reports to prosecutors who have to get them to the court, and in Multnomah County that paperwork process is often taking a month.

“We can’t seem to shorten that period up,” Abraham says. “We ought to be able to do that faster and I don’t really know why we can’t.”

The Hartford approach is vastly different from Portland’s, where nuisance offenders often tear up police citations as soon as they are issued, and know they likely will never be taken to jail if they fail to appear in court. Even if they are arrested after an abundance of failures to appear, they are released after a few hours, according to Abraham.

That wouldn’t fly in Hartford, according to Norko. Hartford defendants who don’t show up for their nuisance crime court dates face a $150 cash bond that can be worked off with community service, according to Norko. Social workers who offer addiction services and mental health treatment are part of the process as well.

But if offenders still don’t appear, Norko issues an arrest warrant, police bring them to jail, and their community service time increases. The failure-to-appear rate has dropped below 5 percent.

“You can make the argument you’re criminalizing the homeless, but the community in Hartford demands their quality of life be enforced by the police department and the court,” Norko says.