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Homeless court metes out justice in accessible setting

Published: Thursday, May 24 2012 6:09 p.m. MDT

Salt Lake Justice Court Judge John Baxter shakes hands with Mike Shannon during court for low-level homeless criminal offenders at the Bishop William K. Weigand Resource Center in Salt Lake City Friday, May 18, 2012.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Michael Connolly said he "celebrated too much" following his friend's wedding. That resulted in a police citation for public intoxication.

"I'm an Irishman. I know how to do that," he told Salt Lake Justice Court Judge John Baxter during a recent session of homeless court at the Bishop William K. Weigand Resource Center.

In exchange for a guilty plea to the public intoxication charge, Baxter dismissed a trespassing offense and ordered Connolly to perform 10 hours of community service within 60 days.

"We're just human beings and we all make mistakes. And that's OK, as long as you take care of your mistakes," Connolly said after appearing before the judge.

To a large degree, the homeless court serves that very purpose — holding people accountable for low-level crimes, understanding that they have far fewer resources and far more impediments to repaying their debts to society.

The court, launched in 2004, is modeled after San Diego's homeless court. The thinking is, if court is conducted in locations that are accessible and less formal than "the big courthouse," more people will come to court to address tickets and citations, Baxter said.

Baxter has had a long history of working on behalf of and with homeless people as a volunteer dispensing legal advice at the Sunday morning breakfast for the homeless, a legal defender and, since 2002, a Salt Lake City justice court judge.

On a recent Friday afternoon, 61 people appeared before the judge. Within three hours, the court had handled 58 cases, all lower-level misdemeanor offenses or infractions such as trespassing, loitering or violating park curfews.

While the atmosphere is casual, there is an expectation of decorum. Defendants address Baxter as "Judge "or "Your honor." He insists that defendants treat court personnel with respect.

He treats the people in his caseload with a like measure of dignity.

"No matter what walk of life they're coming from, he treats ’em fair," said Debbie Sivels, who was in court to check in with Baxter on the status of a previous trespassing citation.

"He's good. He treats everyone fair."

That's important to Baxter, who says most homeless people he has counseled as an attorney or appear before him as a judge have had few positive interactions with authority figures.

Because the court meets on the Catholic Community Services campus across the street from The Road Home's temporary shelter, people are more likely to show up because of proximity and a greater comfort level. Court is conducted every other Friday after the lunch hour.

"A lot of people here don't understand the concept of time, but they know when homeless court is," said John Udseth, a court liaison volunteer. 

Baxter doesn't wear a robe. His "bench" is a table that he shares with court staff and a city prosecutor. 

Homeless court operates with the understanding that "you can come and see me and I'm not going to have you taken into custody," Baxter said.

The laid-back atmosphere is in sharp contrast to Salt Lake City's Justice Court, where attorneys appear in suits, judges don robes and everyone who enters the justice complex is subject to security screening.

Under the best of circumstances, "being in court is stressful," said Salt Lake City prosecutor Christopher Jennings. He said he attempts to follow Baxter's lead in how he addresses the defendants who appear in homeless court. "I try not to be overly punitive as a prosecutor," he said.

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