ST. PETERSBURG — The judge wore a V-neck sweater, no tie, no robe. He sat on a chair at a folding table in a bare-bones cafeteria, instead of presiding over a session amid the marble grandeur of the courthouse. He looked straight at the defendant in front of him, instead of staring down from the bench.
"Try not to pick up any new charges," Pinellas County Judge James Pierce told the homeless man in jeans and a blue jacket smudged with dirt. "And you're going to AA, right? To try to deal with the problem?" The man nodded.
So it went Saturday as judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, paralegals, clerks and law students convened the county's second Homeless Court at the Salvation Army's shelter at 301 14th Ave. S., three blocks south of the Salvador Dali Museum.
About 20 defendants showed up at the shelter on a cold and rainy day to clear up misdemeanor charges, mostly for trespassing, open-container possession and public urination.
"This is a pretty cool thing that they've got going on here," said the defendant who had just faced Pierce, who gave his name only as Thomas J., 48, and said he had once been a chef in New York. He said he'd decided to try it after he heard about it "through the grapevine on the street."
He had been charged with having an open container of alcohol in public. He probably would not have reported voluntarily to the Pinellas County Criminal Justice Center on 49th Street in Largo, he said. Without Homeless Court, he would have skipped his court appearance, drawing a warrant that would have led to his arrest and some time in jail.
Pierce estimated there are 60,000 warrants out for homeless people who have failed to appear in court on minor charges that would normally result in fines, not jail time.
Each day one of those defendants spends in jail costs taxpayers $100, he said. By meeting those defendants in the shelters, it saves the taxpayers money, he said.
Four judges showed up to help Saturday, including Circuit Judge Thomas Penick, who arrived in a wheelchair, his hand frequently reaching up to adjust his eye patch. Penick, who is suffering from Agent Orange exposure from when he was in Vietnam, said the idea for Homeless Court originated with a proposal sent him by a disabled veterans group.
The court dealt with about 20 cases Saturday morning, said Assistant State Attorney Timothy Sullivan. Some of the resolutions were as much psychological as legal.
One defendant, after dealing with an open-container charge, stood off to the side for several minutes, struggling to hold back tears.
Although disappointed in the low turnout, Pierce and other leaders of the effort hope to make it a monthly event. They know problems faced by the homeless won't be resolved by a single visit — and that they're likely to see some of the same faces over and over.
Take Thomas J., for instance. After he talked to the judge, he admitted to a reporter that he's not really attending Alcoholics Anonymous right now.
"Sooner or later I'll go back," he promised, before melting into the crowd.
Craig Pittman can be reached at (727) 893-8530 or firstname.lastname@example.org.