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Homeless court examines past only to look ahead

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Rarely does one walk out of a court hearing feeling happy and hopeful about humanity, even though some of the members of said humanity have broken the law.

But Albuquerque Metro Court’s special court for homeless people is full of kumbaya moments. Here, tears, albeit happy ones, flow and onlookers smile. The judge hugs defendants, shakes their hands, trades jokes. Defense attorneys and prosecutors alike appear gleefully conciliatory.

Here, the charges against the defendant are never mentioned. The focus, attorneys say, is not on what the defendant did bad but what the defendant is doing to be good.

It’s as if Lady Justice traded in her blindfold for rose-colored glasses.

“It’s nice, isn’t it?” asks Naomi Salazar, a private attorney who along with attorneys Marcie Neville and Cynthia Payne volunteer their time to represent defendants at homeless court, held on the third Wednesday of each month. “It’s a very different experience than regular court, and many times this is the first time a person in authority has been so encouraging to the defendant. It’s very humbling and very rewarding to be able to work on these cases.”

Salazar invited me to sit in on a homeless court session last month, and it was, as she said, very different.

For one, court is held at St. Martin’s Hospitality Center, a day shelter and service provider for Albuquerque’s homeless population. Although the center is only three blocks north of Metro Court, it feels a world away for homeless defendants, who advocates say are more likely to show up for court on safe turf free from clothing and hygiene concerns and the fear of fines and being locked up.

“Our population struggles to survive, and something like a court hearing is even more intimidating to them than to others,” said Karen Navarro, client advocate at St. Martin’s. “Having the court here means clients are more likely to show up for court.”

Eliminating repeated no-shows for costly court dates and warrants is part of the reason homeless court was instituted in Albuquerque in 2002 by Metro Court Judge Victoria Grant – the second city to do so since the inaugural homeless court began in 1989 in San Diego.

“Homeless court is considered a diversion court,” Salazar said. “It is more focused on what the defendant has done since the date of offense.”

Defendants are given the opportunity to tell the court how they came to be homeless, their pain and their shame and what they are trying to do to get better – all of which sounds more like a therapy session than testimony.

Theresa Becerra, whose charge of shoplifting has gone unresolved since November 2012, told the judge her life bottomed out after the death of her husband of 32 years. That left her alone, penniless, homeless and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety. Recently, though, she said, she had begun treatment at Healthcare for the Homeless. She was finding her way back through her art. She had found a new man – her “medicine,” she said – and had moved into a motel.

“I just want to get my life back on track,” she told Metro Court Judge Henry Alaniz, who presides over homeless court. “It was a hard lesson.”

Prosecutor Taryn Kaselonis was convinced.

“It sounds like you’ve had a hard life,” she said. “We move to dismiss.”

Not every homeless person is right for homeless court. Most aren’t. The charges heard by the court are nonviolent misdemeanors – the so-called “quality of life” offenses such as criminal trespass, public nuisance, shoplifting and drinking in public. Cases not eligible for homeless court includes felonies, domestic violence and DWIs.

Candidates must also be referred by a community agency such as St. Martin’s, be active in some form of treatment and be able to show that they are well on their way out of homelessness. Which is to say that homeless court is largely for the homeless who are not homeless.

Perhaps that is why although dozens of homeless people languish in the Metropolitan Detention Center unable to post bail or pay fines for minor infractions – including, in one notable case, littering – only four defendants were on the April docket.

In the past nine months, 56 cases were transferred to homeless court. Of those, 36 cases were successfully resolved, or about four a month. That monthly figure is down from 2005 when the average number of successful homeless court cases was about six or seven per month.

“It is unfortunate that we aren’t hearing more cases,” Alaniz said.

ALANIZ: Presides over homeless court

ALANIZ: Presides over homeless court

Robert Padilla, Metro Court interim CEO, said the judge has asked court staff to develop procedures to identify appropriate candidates upon arrest rather than wait for agencies to refer clients.

At April’s session, Alaniz dismissed the charges and quashed the warrants for all four defendants, sending them on their way, which, hopefully, is not back to the streets and back on the carousel of crime.

With their court cases out of the way, each defendant was eligible to pursue housing options, education, even a deaconship that their pending criminal charges had precluded.

When new procedures are in place, perhaps many more eligible clients, now lost either in jail or on the streets, will be served.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, jkrueger@abqjournal.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

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