A much-ballyhooed special Columbia city court for homeless people has handled one homeless person’s case since it started in January and is not working as promoters hoped.
The court, which was specially created by Chief Justice Jean Toal last fall, has been delayed by differences of opinion between 5th Circuit Court Solicitor Dan Johnson and others involved in the court about how the process should work.
Johnson said his biggest concern, as the prosecutor who has to approve who goes before the court, is to make sure violent offenders – people with an armed robbery or criminal domestic violence conviction, for example – aren’t accepted by the homeless court.
“I can’t save everybody. I can look at the cases and say, ‘I think we can help this guy’ or ‘This guy looks like he’s too bad to mess with,’” Johnson said. “I don’t think there’s a dispute between me and the judge. We are trying to work to form the structure so the public defender and myself can accomplish the goal to run the homeless court in a way that meets constitutional requirements.”
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Johnson predicted the court would soon be functional and be handling appropriate cases.
“Ultimately, I’m the only elected official,” he said, meaning he’s the one the public would hold responsible for any missteps. “You wouldn’t want to admit somebody to the program who will go and hurt somebody.”
Dana Turner, the city’s chief judge, declined to discuss the situation in detail. She said people responsible for making the court functional are working on getting it restarted.
“Conversations are continuing, and we hope that a fair and equitable process is being developed that will allow us to resume holding the homeless court,” Turner said. “We’re trying our best to comply with the chief justice’s order, and we think it’s going to work. We just want to have the right process in place.”
Fifth Circuit Public Defender Doug Strickler, who wants defense lawyers to be an integral part of the process, said he has been talking with Johnson about the court and hopes the impasse will be resolved.
“We’re attempting to resolve the differences that we have,” Strickler said.
Part of the problem involves a lack of funding for defense lawyers, Strickler said.
Last September, Toal, who could not be reached for comment Tuesday, appointed Turner to preside over the court in a special Supreme Court order last September. The court was supposed to be a pilot project and was the first such court in the state.
The court is supposed to work this way: If a homeless person were arrested for a minor criminal offense, such as urinating in public, panhandling, public drunkenness or shoplifting, social workers would work with the person to see if that person could, instead of a jail sentence, get the proper help to lift themselves out of homelessness.
Social workers would develop a program for the person, and if that program were successfully completed, the charges would be dropped. Presumably, by that time, the person would be on the path to leading a normal, stable life.
The court’s creation followed more than a year’s worth of study by various study groups, city and court officials, legal justice advocates. Study groups flew to Birmingham, Ala., and San Diego, two cities with successful homeless courts, to examine how those courts worked.
Johnson said he runs numerous court programs for special categories of offenders, and they are working. These include two adult drug courts, an alcohol education program, a juvenile drug court, veterans’ court, mental health court and pre-trial intervention, he said.
The homeless court is a new kind of court because it involves a new and different kind of offender, and the initial process needed tweaking, Johnson said.
“This is a social problem and not really a criminal problem. We are trying to find a middle ground,” Johnson said. “I’m confident it will work, because everybody wants to do it and do it in the right way.”