Multnomah County Frets over No-Shows at Special Court for the Homeless

From the Portland Mercury, September 25, 2013

To get a sense of how things are going at the Bud Clark Commons Community Court, check out its chairs.

Each Friday afternoon, the docket for the court lists dozens of transient offenders accused of minor, quality-of-life-type offenses—things like drinking in public, urinating in public, smoking pot in public.

Bud Clark Commons

Bud Clark Commons

And yet, for all those names, the makeshift courtroom has only 16 plastic chairs, all neon green, arrayed for defendants awaiting judgment. Many Fridays, even that’s optimistic.

The homeless center’s community court, hailed as an unprecedented innovation when it began in early 2012, has reached a turning point of sorts. The transient offenders whom officials hoped to lure in with the court’s non-threatening location have remained leery. The bulk of court staff’s time each Friday goes toward assigning warrants for those who don’t show up. Meanwhile, those staffers might be more efficiently used elsewhere in the resource-strapped county court system.

“The objective we’ve set out to accomplish isn’t being achieved,” Doug Bray, Multnomah County Circuit Court administrator, told local justice officials earlier this month. “Those kinds of courts can be successful, but it can’t be successful the way we’re running it.”

Something has to change in the once-promising court, everyone agrees. But no one’s quite sure how, or if, that will happen.

Only about 30 percent of offenders show up for court at the Commons, according to estimates from the social services provider running the facility, Transition Projects. The court’s primary aim is to immediately connect defendants with social services, but just a fraction accepts that offer.

“Nobody wants my help,” says Diana Arling, a Multnomah County employee who assists defendants who want access to mental health services. “I’ve tried and tried.”

On a recent Friday, Transition Projects Outreach Director Larry Turner corralled the 11 defendants who showed up (there were 80 or so on the docket) into a small room before court began.

“If you’re here for your court date today, we’re trying to hook people up with services,” Turner told the group. “That doesn’t mean you have to. It’s a regular court.”

Most of the defendants remained silent. Two said they hoped to complete community service and move on with their lives. One woman, 34-year-old Michelle Barnett, murmured she’d like some help.

“I’ve gotten into a lot of trouble out here,” Barnett said 20 minutes later, waiting for a judge to call her name. “Today is possession of marijuana. Next month is drinking in public.”

Barnett and her husband moved from San Antonio four years ago, she said, and shortly after fell into a heroin habit (“two grams a day”). She’d lost her job as a home health-care worker, and two months ago found herself on the street. Her husband is serving a jail sentence for drug charges.

But on this Friday, Barnett’s blue eyes are clear—she’s been clean for weeks, she says, and has no intention of backsliding. She’d come to court prepared to start working through her charges, and was surprised to find Bud Clark Commons had a bed available. The center has lengthy waiting lists, but it keeps some bunks open for community court defendants.

“I plan on trying to stay clean and keep positive,” says Barnett, clearly relieved she won’t be spending another night on the streets. “I’m really grateful for my ticket last month.”

It’s a success for the court. It’s also a rarity. In more than a year of operation, two defendants have obtained permanent housing through interaction with the court, Turner says.

Officials don’t have many ideas for how to increase participation, but the current thought is that shortening the time between a citation and offenders’ court dates might help them stay on track. It’s currently a 30-day window.

“We don’t want to be in a position of warrants being issued,” says Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Nan Waller. “I’m going to be as optimistic as I can that we will be able to work through the timeliness.”

But speeding the system’s bureaucratic cogs isn’t easy—it’s not even clearly possible. Police, prosecutors, and court staff all operate on set schedules, and say they’re already working quickly as is.

“Everybody down the chain is upset about that whole idea,” says Laurie Abraham, a deputy district attorney. “If every agency is willing to see what we can do, at least as an experiment, why not try and see?”

Cops, who’d be forced to fast-track reports to the DA’s office, are skeptical.

“I would say there’s potentially pushback from us,” says Lieutenant Mike Marshman. The police bureau favors an approach where those who fail to appear are picked up, jailed for a day or so, and then brought before the court—a proposition that might draw criticism in an era of unprecedented, and costly, jail overcrowding.

“What we’d like to avoid is going to a system where we just arrest them and have them appear in court the next morning,” says Bray, the court administrator. But, he noted, something’s got to give.

“We can’t continue to operate like this and be efficient.”