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.’”
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.
Critics argue that these types of programs are ineffective without simultaneous changes to policing that would address the criminalization of people experiencing homelessness. Phoenix police, for example, are under federal investigation for their treatment of people living on the streets.
Low graduation rates show the difficulties this population can face despite navigating courts built with them in mind. And even strong proponents of the courts concede that the programs are not a wholesale solution to homelessness.
But for people facing the prospect of fines and jail time that could make it more difficult to exit the streets or obtain employment, the courts can serve as a lifeline.
Jennifer Webber, 58, is one of the recent “graduates” of Mesa’s court. She had her trespassing citation dismissed late last year and said it’s a relief not to have the prospect of punishment shadowing her as she works to get into more permanent housing and make other changes in her life after about seven years on the streets.
“Before I started community court, the original sentence was that I could have had 30 days in jail and a $500 fine — and I have no income,” Webber said outside the courtroom, her hands still clutching the certificate the judge had handed her just moments before. “I kind of have stuff I have to go through before I can start working. I still have some things going on, you know?”
‘Do you lock them up?’
Aside from Mesa’s court, which has been operating since 2018, there’s a similar program in Maricopa County with the ability to serve eligible defendants across the region and a city-specific program in Tucson.
In the past two years, at least two new courts for people experiencing homelessness have gotten off the ground in Arizona: one in Scottsdale and another in Chandler. A third is currently under development in the fast-growing city of Goodyear.
Goodyear’s program is expected to be the first of its kind in the West Valley, and is under development at a time when the number of people experiencing homelessness in the city has soared along with the municipality’s population. The number of unsheltered people in the community ballooned to 23 in 2020 from seven in 2017 — a 228% increase, according to an annual census count of the homeless.
In an effort to get ahead of the growing challenge, city leaders have turned to the homeless court concept, with a plan to model their new program — which should be up and running sometime later this year — after Mesa’s.
“We see the need to individualize justice,” Mayra Galindo, Goodyear’s presiding municipal court judge, said in explaining the decision to invest $300,000 in a court for veterans and the homeless. “In a flourishing city like this is — and it’s just growing at a neck break speed — if we do not pour the foundation where we can prepare for the needs of the community as it grows, we’re setting up ourselves for failure.”
While the move toward homeless courts in Arizona is relatively recent, the concept dates to 1989, when the nation’s first homeless court opened in San Diego, California, according to a 2017 report from the National Center for State Courts.
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Since then, at least nine other states around the country have embraced the model as part of an effort to address the barriers people experiencing homelessness often face when brought into the court system.
Challenges vary, but some people on the streets lack clothes that adhere to the traditional decorum requirements of a courtroom or transportation to get to the courthouse in the first place, the Maricopa County Regional Homeless Court notes on its website. Others face mental health challenges that can make it difficult to understand the legal system or may feel intimidated by the court process.
If they can overcome these barriers, they face others.
The fines and fees typically imposed in court can be insurmountable to some people on the streets, according to the American Bar Association — especially if they are facing multiple charges. And unpaid fines can quickly accumulate, making it more difficult for people to access “desperately needed services” like public benefits and mental health or substance abuse treatment.
Serving jail time can also make it harder for people to get into housing or get jobs that can help them become more stable, the association noted in an August resolution addressing homeless courts.
As its homeless population faced these challenges, Mesa realized a few years ago that its existing system was failing those on the streets.
“We would see homeless people come through and as prosecutors, we knew they were homeless,” said City Prosecutor Paul Hawkins. “But it was like, what do you do? If it’s their, like, 15th or 20th case, you know, do you lock them up and when they get out they’re just as homeless as when they went in? Or, do you not do anything and that looks like well, but they’re committing these offenses but you’re not doing anything?”
That’s when the city created its community court, which gives people experiencing homelessness who have charges for low-level and non-violent crimes the opportunity to get their cases dismissed if they agree to participate in services.
As part of that process, defendants are assigned a “navigator,” who meets with them outside of the courtroom and can help them obtain needed identification documents, housing vouchers and government benefits and find jobs. Sometimes navigators will even offer someone a ride so they can meet the court’s attendance requirements.
Audrey Sanders, a community navigator with the nonprofit Copa Health, said she provides people with a “smorgasbord of options and they choose what they would like to do.”
“Obviously, some things are mandated by court, such as substance use treatment and then getting their documents and stuff,” she said. “But a lot of times they have a lot of other little things that we do. Sometimes it’s even like reconnecting them to family they haven’t spoken to. We just try to basically remove any barriers to them moving forward.”
Defendants come back to court multiple times throughout to provide updates on their progress. And when Tatz thinks they are ready, he can dismiss their cases.
Good said the program usually takes anywhere from six months to a year to complete, a period during which she says defendants have the support they need to make real changes.
“When we have somebody that goes through the entire court process, we all see their accomplishments and they get a sense of accomplishment,” she said. “And you can see it in them and them being proud of themselves and what’s going on in their life. It’s really awesome to see.”
Webber, who spent more than 18 months working through homeless court, said the process felt rigorous at times, and she didn’t like the expectation that she had to come before the judge every month. She also worried that she wouldn’t ultimately make it through.
“It’s great; I didn’t expect it today,” she said the day of her graduation. “I kept thinking, man, is this ever going to happen for me?”
But Webber said the program has overall been a positive force in her life. During the court process, her navigator helped her get into a hotel that had been converted into a temporary shelter for the homeless and has also been working to help her find a more permanent living situation.
‘Steps to find stability’
Not every case that goes through the court ends as a success story, though.
In 2021, Mesa’s court added 1,257 people to the docket. Just 114 of them graduated, according to data provided by the courts, or a 9% success rate. But of those who graduated, only seven have so far returned to Mesa’s community court with new cases within the calendar year.
In 2020 — a year in which the court system faced significant disruption amid the coronavirus pandemic — there were 782 people added to community court and 38 of them graduated. That’s a success rate of about 5%. Just three of those defendants ultimately returned to community court within the year after they graduated from the program.
Tatz said many defendants are filtered out of Mesa’s program because they either aren’t showing up or haven’t accomplished what they were asked to do by the court. Some of them aren’t ready to change their lives, he said, so a court that’s centered on that goal isn’t going to help them exit homelessness.
“If they’re not ready, we’re not going to (be able to) help them.”
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But those who do graduate are better off, Tatz says. Many have found housing or are in some kind of shelter waiting for government-subsidized housing to open up. And they’re no longer burdened with the fear of fines and jail time for their cases in Mesa.
“They have taken advantage of the system,” he said of the program’s graduates. “They’ve either gotten themselves off the streets or they’ve gotten themselves substance abuse treatment, or they got themselves a job and found a place to stay. I mean, they’ve succeeded. That’s why they graduated.”
In Maricopa County’s post-adjudication program — which turns fees and fines that have already been levied against members of the homeless population for low-level offenses into community restitution hours — some 1,780 people experiencing homelessness participated from 2013 to April 2022.
During that time period, they completed nearly 623,000 service hours, according to data provided by the program. Under the court’s rules, that can encompass anything from traditional community service, like picking up trash on the highway, to efforts that “foster the applicant’s path out of homelessness,” like studying for a GED diploma, taking parenting classes or meeting with a case worker, according to Karen Sadler, Maricopa County’s regional homeless court coordinator.
By the time people graduate, “they have taken a lot of steps to find stability and they’ve done just a lot of work and a lot of community service hours to take care of their fines and fees,” she said.
‘They might not be able to follow through’
While proponents of homeless courts point to the benefits of helping this population better access the judicial system, they also concede that it’s not a solution to the multifaceted problems that push people onto the streets and keep them there — from poverty to rising health care costs and unequal access to education.
And the programs aren’t without critics.
Elizabeth Venable, an organizer with the Fund for Empowerment, a Phoenix-based group that advocates for the rights of those on the streets, questions the benefits of these courts without corresponding changes to the way police approach the unhoused population.
The U.S. Justice Department announced last summer that it was launching an investigation into the Phoenix Police Department’s treatment of people experiencing homelessness amid complaints that officers had illegally seized people’s property during encampment sweeps. The probe, which was expected to last more than a year, is also investigating the department’s use of force and claims of discrimination against people experiencing homelessness.
Police working with people experiencing homelessness are often carrying out policies implemented at the city level — as was the case with the encampment cleanups, which had been unanimously approved by the Phoenix City Council.
The National Low-Income Housing Coalition has found that city ordinances targeting people experiencing homelessness have “dramatically” increased across the United States over the last few years. And many people experiencing homelessness come to court as a result of citations for these so-called “lifestyle crimes,” like trespassing or loitering.
Until efforts to criminalize people experiencing homelessness end, Venable argues that homeless court programs simply apply a Band-Aid to a problem that originated elsewhere.
“I think many of the charges are illegitimate, so most of them shouldn’t be prosecuted in homeless court,” she said.
She thinks program funding would be better spent on housing for people experiencing homelessness and also worries that the barriers to going through homeless court are too high to help many people who need it.
“You have to be extremely compliant, and you only get to do it if you have proven various improvements to your life,” she said. “That’s very hard.”
Sadler, with the Maricopa County Regional Homeless Court, acknowledged the filtering of cases can be a real limitation of these types of programs — especially considering the number of people experiencing homelessness who face mental illness.
“We have these certain standards that individuals are going to have to meet,” she said. “And in some cases, those standards can mean that if it’s an individual who doesn’t have the cognitive or emotional ability to have a relationship with a case manager and to follow up and follow through with those case managers, they might not be able to follow through with our program.”
During the 2020 point in time count, nearly 1,000 people experiencing homelessness in the county self-identified as having a mental illness, or about one in eight people living on the streets.
While advocates for such programs acknowledge that these courts aren’t a solution for homelessness, and that some people will fall through the cracks, proponents still see their potential to help individual clients change their lives for the better.
And that’s a hope many people experiencing homelessness share, as well.
After he attended his first court session for a trespassing case in November, Rich Cragle, 47, noted that he has a long “rap sheet” that includes everything from “stealing bikes all the way up to stealing stuff out of a store.” Those court cases can make life more difficult, he said, for people who are trying to improve their circumstances.
“It gives them a harder life,” he said. “And not only that, they don’t get better.”
But he was optimistic that this court, with its different approach to justice and its focus on addressing the core challenges that keep people on the streets, would provide the help he needs to exit homelessness after nearly seven years.
“I hope so. I really do. My belief is I think it will,” he said outside of the courtroom. “They were nice to me and they were really explanatory to me. And I think I’m just going to sit back and see if they can’t help me this time.”
As of late May, Cragle was still active in the court system and scheduled to appear to provide an update on his progress.
Taylor Stevens, a former reporter at the Salt Lake Tribune, is currently pursuing a master’s degree in investigative journalism at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism.