Even in times of tight budgets, the 6th Judicial Circuit along with the local public defender and state attorney offices are working toward innovative approaches to criminal justice and social problems.
The circuit, which includes Pinellas and Pasco counties, has a proud history of cooperation. It was the first to adopt a unified family court that has been replicated throughout the state; it has a highly regarded specialized drug court to divert addicts into treatment, and numerous diversion programs for young offenders. Now add to that a court for the homeless — satellite court sessions that bring hearings to the places where the homeless live.
The program, the first in Florida, will save taxpayers money by keeping the homeless out of jail, reducing arrest warrants and duplicative hearings, and may even help some homeless people get their lives back on track.
One of the more intractable problems for the homeless in St. Petersburg is the endless cycle of getting arrested for petty offenses related to living on the streets, then being released only to be rearrested and jailed due to a missed court hearing because they couldn't get to the criminal courthouse in Clearwater. To break that cycle, two judges from the Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court were to hear cases on Saturday at the St. Petersburg Coliseum.
Homeless court is not for people facing serious criminal charges. But if someone is accused of city ordinance violations or minor misdemeanor charges where there is no victim — the kinds of legal problems that the homeless typically have — Pinellas County Judges Lorraine Kelly and James Pierce will try to resolve them in a nonpunitive manner.
Saturday's homeless court was to be part of an annual expo of community resources where homeless people can go to find help to enter drug treatment, find housing, access disability benefits and other services. The court session planned for February will be at the Salvation Army Red Shield Lodge in St. Petersburg. The hope is that the court will convene monthly at places around the county where the homeless congregate.
Our frayed social safety net means homeless people who are often addicted or mentally ill typically end up in the criminal justice system. A homeless court is one practical and efficient way to deal with them and their uniquely difficult circumstances in a way that may help.