Where the Judge Is Most Merciful 

Exoneration is the rule -- the point, actually -- at Alameda County's new court for the homeless.

One Friday afternoon a few weeks ago, in a West Oakland neighborhood known for its steady crack trade, Alameda County's new Homeless/Caring Court was called to order for the first time. No one was convicted of any crime. No one went to jail. No one even had to pay a fine.

Precisely as planned.

One after another, roughly forty denizens of county homeless shelters stood before Superior Court Judge Gordon S. Baranco, who held forth in full robes before a California flag and state seal at the San Pablo Avenue outlet of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, a charity that provides for the needy. And one after another, the judge set aside their sundry charges -- throwing cigarettes on the sidewalk, possessing stolen shopping carts -- and waived their fines, some totaling more than $2,000.

Modeled on San Diego's Homeless Court, which began in 1989, the new program aims to replace fines for petty offenses with referrals to agencies that offer remedial education, substance-abuse treatment, and other services. Similar courts now operate in about ten California cities -- the October 15 Oakland hearing was a dry run for the local program's official start date of December 10. The court is based on the premise that small-time violations, bench warrants, and escalating fines create obstacles for anyone trying to get off the street: Outstanding criminal charges make people ineligible for federal housing assistance -- Social Security and federal assistance for disabilities are likewise out of reach.

And some violations restrict job opportunities. Take 37-year-old Brian Jennings, who was among the beneficiaries of Baranco's merciful justice. The former delivery-truck driver was ticketed in March for an illegal lane change, costing him his commercial license -- and his job. Jennings, who was born in Fairfield and later studied criminal justice at Solano Community College, also has struggled with substance abuse for years, but says he has mellowed with age. After being relieved of nearly $600 in fines related to the unpaid ticket, he called the homeless court "absolutely perfect." The timing also was "beautiful," Jennings said: After more than a year spent volunteering at the Oakland YMCA and St. Vincent de Paul, he recently moved into his own apartment and has been applying for new delivery jobs.

The homeless court was sorely needed, its backers say. According to a recent estimate from Alameda County's Health Care for the Homeless program, as many as twelve thousand county residents are without shelter on any given day. The hope is that the new program will give these people a chance to clear their records and help them escape the streets. It also may save the county money, proponents say, by getting folks back on track. "We don't want people using their legal offenses to not reintegrate," says Kathie Barkow, a consultant to the Homeless Continuum of Care Council, a coalition of local government officials, service providers, and community reps that teamed up with the Superior Court to create the new program. The idea, she says, is to address "natural by-products of what happens when you're homeless."

This get-out-of-jail-free card, however, requires at least some effort by the defendants, who need a referral from a service provider such as St. Vincent de Paul, and must qualify for the program by providing a written review from a job or community-service supervisor. They also need to write to the court explaining the circumstances of their crimes. Public Defender Diane A. Bellas summarizes the evidence to Baranco, who then offers his recommendation to Deputy District Attorney Stuart Hing. All three are volunteering their time.

The court's inaugural session released people from charges such as littering, possession of open booze containers, traffic infractions, BART fare evasion, and park curfew violations. Throughout, the judge joked with his indigent clients and wished them luck. "This is not a secret way of rounding everybody up to take them to jail," Baranco told them. "People have said that. It's not going to happen. No one is getting arrested today -- unless you act up. People have been asking if I'm going to talk to everybody and give them a lecture. No. That's not my job."

Exoneration, however, came with one admonition: "This is a one-stop shop -- we're not gonna see any of you here in December," the judge said repeatedly. He advised the street people not to take the court's generosity for granted, and noted that subsequent offenses would not be dismissed. Defendants had to complete an exit survey saying they understood the latter detail, and document some personal history and demographic information.

The remaining challenge, once the court is fully up and running, will be to convince the homeless that showing up is in their best interest. "'You better not go to court' -- you hear that all the time on the street. Yes, you should go to court," says Myron Jerry, who lives in a homeless shelter and volunteers at St. Vincent de Paul. As an observer, Jerry gives the court "a big A-plus." For his part, he credits volunteer work for keeping him out of the system. "It helps keep me out of trouble," he says. "The only thing we have around here is trouble."

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