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Speedy court dates pull offenders off the streets

Project ratchets up consequences for missing Old Town hearings


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Chuck Smith (left) listens as fellow homeless Portlander Scott explains why he rarely appears in community court after receiving citations from police. Since the court moved to Bud Clark Commons two years ago only about three in ten cited by police have made their court appearances.The 23-year-old street kid called Bam Bam knows all about police citations for nuisance crimes. He’s received eight or nine in the past year or so. The majority of citations, which require attendance at community court, are given by Portland police to homeless people found drinking alcohol in a public space, or possessing less than an ounce of marijuana.

Bam Bam, like most street people cited by police, usually ignores the citations, although occasionally, he says, he makes his appearance at the Friday court in Old Town’s Bud Clark Commons.

Why the no shows? Sometimes, Bam Bam says, he finds temporary work, and that keeps him from going to court. Sometimes he simply leaves town.

“I hop trains,” he says with a smile.

Bam Bam and nearly everybody else on the street think that not showing up for the community court is no big deal, at least to them. The court doesn’t hold actual trials. When they do show up, a judge generally gives them a choice: They can engage the many social services present for help ranging from addiction and mental health counseling to subsidized housing applications, or they can serve a few hours of community service. In either case, their charges get dropped.

Failing to appear at court on a misdemeanor or felony charge would earn Bam Bam an arrest warrant. But Multnomah County doesn’t have enough jail space or money to hold everyone accused of serious crimes. So the idea of jailing people who urinate or drink in public and then fail to appear in community court doesn’t have a lot of support from most of the players in the criminal justice system.

Bam Bam knows that.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO; JAIME VALDEZ - 23-year-old Bam Bam lives on Portlands streets--when hes here. A self-described Traveler, Bam Bam says if police start arresting fellow Travelers who dont show up in community court, the youths will get more defiant.“That’s the problem. If there’s no consequence I wouldn’t show up,” says Doreen Binder, executive director of Transition Projects Inc., the nonprofit that provides day services at Bud Clark Commons and campaigned to get

the Friday court sessions moved there.

But consequence for Bam Bam, and others, is slowly taking shape. The Multnomah County District Attorney’s office and the Portland Police Bureau have embarked on a series of pilot projects aimed at increasing community court’s 30 percent appearance rate. One change will make it easier for violators to make their court dates. The other will provide a consequence when they don’t.

The stakes are high. When he took over as mayor, Charlie Hales declared that attacking the problems of homelessness and aggressive street behavior were among his top priorities. But cleaning up the downtown street scene has always proven tricky. The new policies could make life uncomfortable for those who commit quality of life crimes downtown.

Deterring chronic offenders

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO; JAIME VALDEZ - Friday community court (here with judge Randall Weisberg presiding), is held at Bud Clark Commons in Old Town as a way to bring the court to its homeless defendants. Those who appear can opt for engaging social services or performing community service to get their charges dropped.Holding the Friday community court at Bud Clark Commons was an attempt to bring the court closer to the people it serves. National court experts say Portland is the first jurisdiction to hold court in a facility for the homeless.

But first, the homeless violators have to appear. Court critics have pointed out that people receiving police citations usually must wait four or five weeks for their day in court. Many homeless people have difficulty keeping their lives organized, much less remembering to show up for a court date a month or more in the future.

Last week, a series of logistical changes were instituted by police, the district attorney’s office and the court administration that are expected to result in community court dates no more than 10 days from the date of a citation, and in many cases much less.

Still, a more difficult problem remains the consequence for those who do not show up. Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill has chosen to deal with this problem through a clever bit of legal maneuvering called the Chronic Offender Pilot Project. The project had a quiet beginning last summer when police officers began adding a conversation to the citations they gave to people found littering or drinking in public spaces.

In essence, police not only issued citations, they also told repeat offenders to stop their behaviors. If offenders were found drinking and littering again, they were arrested. Police in Portland can’t arrest someone for littering, but they can for failing to comply with the orders of an officer. Technically, that’s interfering with a police officer — called an IPO. An IPO offense, unlike a community court citation, can merit jail time.

The way the chronic offender program is supposed to work, people found continuing their illegal behaviors and ignoring community court dates will be arrested and held until they can be brought to community court. But with Multnomah County jail space reserved for those accused of more serious crimes, chronic street offenders were released and told to show up at community court. When they don’t show up, they face an arrest warrant.

So far, 12 chronic offenders have been arrested and about six have been issued failure to appear warrants using the new IPO rules, according to Portland police Sgt. Craig Dobson. Most of those arrests and warrants involved Travelers, sometimes referred to as Road Warriors, a group the new policy is primarily intended to target. Typically, a couple of days passed between the police contacts, but sometimes, the warning and arrest occurred the same day. Those warrants make a difference, Dobson says.

“A lot of these Traveler folks will comment, ‘I can’t go to Sacramento because I have a warrant there,’ ” Dobson says. “Our hope is if they don’t show up and choose not to do their community service, they get a warrant and that deters them from coming back (to Portland).”

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO; JAIME VALDEZ - Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill has pushed for changes aimed at getting more homeless people to make their community court hearings.

No change in behavior

Underhill says the new program is necessary because it has become obvious that the premise of community court isn’t working for everybody.

“We need to recognize that there is another group of individuals who simply don’t want services,” he says. “How do we address that from a community standpoint?”

Community court, Underhill says, was begun as a means to both get help for the homeless and make Portland’s central city streets more orderly. “If it’s a cycle of citation after citation after citation, there will be no change in behavior,” he says.

Dobson says officers would like more latitude in applying the chronic offender rules, but Underhill says he favors “moderation” in their use. At this point, that means police can only apply the IPO charges to those who drink in public or litter. Underhill says he hopes that will provide enough word of mouth among Portland’s street population to lead to desired change.

Not only are the violations covered limited to alcohol use and littering, but the actual consequence under the chronic offender program is also much lighter than memos detailing the policy suggest. Each of the arrests so far has resulted in the offender being taken to jail and released the same day.

Underhill says the impact still likely will be felt. “Even a few hours of an interruption is an interruption. Nobody likes their stuff searched,” he says.

The arrests and warrants occurred last summer, when the Travelers were most visible on Portland’s streets. Underhill says the program will pick up again when the weather turns warm, possibly in a beefed-up version.

A different kind of IPO

Not everybody thinks using the IPO ordinance is the right way to provide a consequence for those who fail to appear at community court. Lane Borg, executive director of Metropolitan Public Defender, says if the same logic being used in the Chronic Offenders Project were used elsewhere, police could send letters to all Oregon drivers telling them not to commit traffic violations in Portland. Then, those who were caught speeding or running red lights could have criminal charges rather than traffic citations to deal with.

“The law of IPO makes some sense as part of police powers necessary in crowd control situations, but as an indirect way to criminalize violations it seems an inappropriate use of the law,” Borg says.

In the end, much of the success or failure of the new programs will be determined by the reaction of the homeless population chronic offenders. Self-described Traveler Bam Bam calls the plan to have court dates within a week of citation “awesome.”

But Bam Bam is not so positive regarding the chronic offender program, which could lead to jail. He insists that among his group of street youths anything that restricts freedom will be opposed.

“It will just make them more defiant,” Bam Bam says.

Chuck Smith, a homeless man interviewed in front of Sisters of the Road Cafe in Old Town, says the fast-approaching court dates will help. “People forget or lose their citations,” says Smith.

Smith says the chronic offender program also could increase court attendance.

Scott, another member of Old Town’s homeless community, has failed to appear in community court a number of times. He has received four citations for riding MAX without a ticket. He showed for his first court date, but rather than accept social service help or agree to serve community service, he pleaded innocent (he says he had a ticket) and was assigned a circuit court date that has been postponed a number of times.

That experience, Scott says, is why he no longer shows up in community court. He says if community court is truly a court, defendants should be able to have their cases heard there rather than get pulled into the larger criminal justice system’s long waits and uncertain dates.

But the reality is that a full trial at community court won’t happen, Underhill says. That would require arresting officers to show up for each case at Bud Clark Commons, including many in which defendants don’t.


Timing is everything for court dates

The timing of court dates might not seem that big a deal, but for the homeless who have been cited to show up at Bud Clark Community Court, court dates that are a week or less in the future rather than a month or more can make a substantial difference, according to national experts.

Portland court, prosecution and police officials have talked about streamlining their systems for years, and at a meeting held two months ago at Bud Clark Commons all three finally committed to making the logistical changes necessary to reduce the time between citation and appearance.

Police have promised to deliver their citation paperwork the next day to the Multnomah County district attorney's office. District Attorney Rod Underhill has promised court administrators his office will quickly review the information and hand over those cases slated for community court. Doug Bray, the court administrator, says if he receives case paperwork by noon on Thursday he will put those cases on the docket for the Friday afternoon community court.

Underhill pushed hard for the change, according to Doreen Binder, executive director of Transition Projects Inc. Underhill says he is convinced that shortening the time between citation and arraignment will help connect the two events in the minds of those cited.

The change will help, says Hartford, Conn., Community Court Judge Raymond Norko. Norko should know. He transformed Hartford's community court when it faced similar problems. Today, Hartford has an appearance rate of more than 95 percent. Norko pushed to get homeless defendants to court within one or two days, though he has an advantage in that the Hartford court meets five days a week.

Norko says if Portland can get the period between citation and appearance down to four days, “I think you'll see a vast improvement.”

But he warns that changing the appearance rate also has a lot to do with what police officers say when they issue citations. If they take the time to explain how the court is really there to help the homeless find housing, counseling and other social services, defendants are more likely to show.