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.

At the same time, Jennings represents the city and the interest of justice. While most people who appear in homeless court have no money to pay fines, the offenses they commit may result in property damage or theft from businesses or individuals. "I always have to balance that out," Jennings said.

Baxter estimates that about one-third of the homeless defendants he sentences to community service comply with his orders, "which was frankly more than I would have expected. The good news is, they do a lot of work on-site (for Catholic Community Services) and at (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints') Welfare Square." 

In "regular court," compliance to fines, fees and community service orders is considerably higher, perhaps 75 percent to 80 percent, Baxter said. However, the general population has more resources to address its legal obligations.

"Most people I see in regular court have something more at stake. Nobody wants to go to jail," the judge said.

Stewart Gollan, a volunteer attorney who provides pro bono legal advice to homeless court clients on a wide variety of issues but does not appear before the court on their behalf, said the chronically homeless "inescapably pick up a variety of minor charges. They're constantly embedded in the criminal justice system."

Many homeless people who appear before Baxter have no permanent housing, poor work histories, no transportation, struggle with substance abuse, mental illness, physical illness and hunger. Most carry everything they own with them. This past week, one couple carried into the makeshift courtroom a cat in a pet carrier.

While many of the people who appear before Baxter are regulars, Salt Lake City's "housing-first" initiative to address chronic homelessness has helped to reduce the caseload. The program places people in supportive permanent housing and surrounds them with services to address the issues that have resulted in their homelessness. 

"There are guys I used to see every couple of sessions. Now, I haven't seen them for a couple of years," Baxter said.

Having a place to call home means people aren't sleeping on the street, trespassing or hanging out in parks after curfew.

While Baxter and his staff have become more adept at referring people to services that can help them, the judge is nagged by the limited resources and waiting lists for needed services such as substance abuse treatment.

A former Marine, Baxter is particularly keen to the plight of the homeless veterans who appear before him. 

Take Mike Shannon, a Vietnam-era veteran who appeared before Baxter. Shannon has a manual wheelchair. 

In addition to having his case adjudicated, Shannon left court with a telephone number for a woman at the Veterans Administration who can possibly help him obtain a power wheelchair.

"Give her a call and see if she can help you," Baxter said.

"OK. Thank you, judge," Shannon said, flashing a toothless grin.

E-mail: marjorie@desnews.com

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