Newsroom | Courts Take Different Approaches to Ease the Burden of Homelessness

MAG News

For people experiencing homelessness, any sort of legal problem can be a big barrier to overcome. Two different types of courts in the Valley are helping people resolve those legal issues and find help at the same time.

Regional and community courts are both looking for the same result

Homelessness, Toolkit, Pathways Home, Human Services

Life on the streets is hard. When you add in legal problems, things can go from bad to worse in a hurry. For people experiencing homelessness, any sort of legal problem can be a big barrier to overcome.

Two different types of courts in the Valley are helping people resolve those legal issues and find help at the same time: community and regional homeless courts.

Homelessness Court Toolkit

The Maricopa Association of Governments (MAG) Pathways Home Regional Action Plan for Local and Tribal Governments seeks to reduce homelessness in the region by 25 percent by 2027. One part of that plan is the creation of a toolkit that provides information on the Maricopa County Regional Homeless Court, what the eligibility requirements are, and how municipalities can get their participants connected to the Maricopa County Regional Homeless Court. The court’s goal is to help people deal with their legal challenges while making sure they are connected to services and housing to resolve their homelessness.

Cases filed in Municipal and Justice Courts in Maricopa County are reviewed by the court, prosecution, and defense to determine who is eligible.

“The general goal of the homeless court is to resolve outstanding minor misdemeanors, victimless offenses, and warrants for homeless individuals,” said Karen Sadler, the Regional Homeless Court coordinator.

“We have just one court date where they're able to come in, see one judge on one day, and have as many cases as they can achieve and complete and get heard that same day,” said Sadler.

Typically, sentences involve completing required community service hours with an approved transitional care provider program

“An individual suffering from homelessness often has a variety of issues that could be very different from one individual to the next. We have providers whom we have agreements with, and they can directly refer defendants to our program. The provider develops a case plan for those individuals, works with them to carry out the plan, and keeps track of their community restitution hours. These community hours are used to pay off their fines and fees with the courts,” said Sadler.

“We don’t provide the therapeutic need or the therapeutic elements ourselves as the court. What we do is rely on the program providers in the community to provide that to the individuals,” she added.

Mesa’s Community Court is set up differently. Unlike the regional court, there is not yet a finding of guilt. The city of Mesa is one example of a municipal court throughout the valley. Cities across the region can learn how to set up their own community courts through a toolkit created by MAG.

Maricopa County Regional Homeless Court goals

“Nobody wants to be homeless,” said Meg Leal, the Community Court public defender in Mesa.

“Our court is designed to get service-resistant individuals to want to accept services, “Leal said. ‘They are not sentenced to community court. It is a voluntary program, “Leal added.

“The goal was to inspire them to want to do something different. We were finally going to offer them assistance in getting things done that they couldn’t get done themselves. When they successfully complete our program, then we dismiss all their charges and any fines they have in the city of Mesa,” Leal said.

“The reason that restorative courts like this work is because it is a familiar environment to the participants. They’ve been to court before. But instead of being the usual negative, stressful environment – it’s positive. We smile at them. When they tell me ‘I have my ID,’ I tell them you don’t need to show me; I believe you. That never happens in the criminal justice world. Everything is ‘prove it.’ When they come to court, I thank them for coming. I tell them I am happy to see them. Part of what we give them is the gift of time,” she added.

“If we look for the good behavior and we try to reward that, we start to see something different,” said Leal.

To learn more about becoming a qualified Homeless Transitional Program Provider for the Maricopa County Regional Homeless Court at [email protected].

Published November 14, 2022