Most of the many crimes attributed to the homeless in the United States are public disturbance offenses such as illegal lodging, blocking the sidewalk, public intoxication and urination, or riding public transport without paying. Occasionally, there are petty theft or controlled substance violations, but for the most part homeless people are guilty of little more than misdemeanors. Nevertheless, homeless participation in the justice system is scattered and often marked by fear and frustration.
Homeless defendants often fail to appear in court, not because of a disregard for the legal system, but because of their status and position. They struggle daily to eat and sleep safely, often are in no position to adhere to short-term deadlines required for court hearings, and are justifiably scared of being sentenced to custody that leaves them and society no better off than when they were arrested.
In 1988, at San Diego's first Stand Down—a collaborative event offering food, shelter, clothing, health screenings, and benefits counseling to homeless veterans—a number of participating veterans brought up the need for a Homeless Court where they could obtain assistance in settling outstanding criminal cases.
In an effort to counteract the effect of misdemeanor cases pushing homeless defendants further outside society, the court combines a progressive plea bargain system with an assurance of "no custody," helping to bring homeless people back into society, instead of in jail or in debt. In doing so, the program aims to uphold the dignity of the court, while providing a service more suited to the needs and problems of the homeless population (in keeping with Stand Down's slogan, "A Hand Up, Not A Hand Out"). Participants receive alternative sentences ranging from chemical dependency meetings, computer or literacy classes, training or job searching, counseling, and volunteer work-instead of fines and custody.
Homeless Court sessions are held at participating homeless shelters around San Diego County. Sentencing is integrated into the social services of the shelters and takes into account the needs of the homeless population. Shelters assess potential clients of the program, and provide for their basic material needs (food, clothing, and shelter) and the support and services that lead to their eventual alternative sentencing.
In San Diego, the average sentence for a municipal code violation is a $300 fine, and defendants receive a $50 "credit" against a fine for every day spent in custody. By the time Homeless Court participants get to their hearings, they must have spent a month participating in the shelter program, vastly exceeding the typical requirements of traditional court orders, and helping them get back on their feet in ways that traditional incarceration fails to address.
In the year 2003, Homeless Court successfully settled over 700 cases in San Diego County, almost all in the City of San Diego itself. In the coming years, the Homeless Court Program aims to expand its mission to the rest of the county, providing a model for similar programs across the country.