ST. PETERSBURG — The county's first Homeless Court got off to a modest start Saturday: about a dozen had their cases resolved while 60 homeless defendants met with pro bono attorneys to get their cases headed in that direction.
But there's nothing modest about the new court program's ambitions: to give transients a monthly forum to settle their debts to society without going into more debt — and to clear their cases from an already overburdened legal system.
"We reached out to the homeless community and showed them that if you do show up for court we will work with individuals to resolve their problems," said Pinellas County Judge James Pierce. "They'll know that it's a win-win situation for them as well.
"We're trying to develop a whole new attitude about their living circumstances and get people to take positive steps toward re-entering the mainstream and not getting caught in a vicious cycle of being arrested for these petty crimes."
Court was held Saturday at the Coliseum in downtown St. Petersburg along with "Homeless Connect," where groups offered a variety of services and aid to the homeless. The next court date is Feb. 27 at the Salvation Army Red Shield Lodge in St. Petersburg.
Pierce called Saturday's event a successful though limited trial run — but a great way to publicize the program to those it's designed to help.
"We're going to see what the caseload is in the next session," he said. "I anticipate there will be a lot more people because the word will get out."
The cases that were resolved Saturday were minor criminal and civil offenses. Pierce said community service was substituted for the usual fines and court costs. However, time spent in treatment will count toward community service hours.
Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger credited private attorneys who volunteered to help transients resolve civil issues like reinstating driver's licenses suspended for falling behind on financial obligations.
"The private bar was a very positive part of it," Dillinger said.
But Homeless Court won't be a place for defendants to shirk their obligations, Judge Pierce said. Those whose cases weren't resolved Saturday were given notices to appear at the Pinellas County Criminal Justice Center in Largo at a later date or face jail time.
"There are some people who feel that homeless folks shouldn't be given any consideration, but you can't get blood out of a turnip, as the old saying goes," Pierce said. "They don't have the means to pay, and you don't want to put people in jail for their debts."