Homeless courts help people on streets navigate the legal system

Mesa’s Community Court might appear like any other at first glance, with defendants appearing one by one before a judge dressed in a black robe. 

But a closer look at their sentences reveals a key difference. 

On one Wednesday afternoon, Judge John Tatz directs a woman to get a new birth certificate, Social Security card and ID, to attend weekly Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and to stay in regular contact with her “navigator,” or case manager. He tells the next person to sign up for food stamps and to stay in housing. 

Tatz asks everyone who appears in the chamber to consider doing something to help the community before their next court date. But no one leaves here with a sentence to jail time or a requirement that they pay a fee as recompense for crimes that can range from trespassing and possession of drug paraphernalia to public intoxication.

“They’ll be told by the judge directly, ‘This is not a punitive court,’” said Stacey Good, an assistant city prosecutor in Mesa. “You’re not here to get in trouble. We’re not trying to punish you. What we want to do is help. We want to provide services and we want to help change your situation.’” 

Mesa Municipal Court Judge John Tatz presides over Community Court on Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021.

As Arizona’s homeless population has expanded in recent years, Mesa’s court is one of a growing number in the state that’s geared toward rehabilitation rather than punishment, with the ultimate goal of helping people on the streets move more effectively through the criminal justice system.

Each court approaches that aim differently. Some allow people experiencing homelessness to work off fines and fees that accumulate after they’ve been sentenced for a crime, while others — like Mesa’s — can dismiss cases altogether in exchange for participation in the program.