Madison Tries ‘Homeless Court’ to Help Those Who’ve Mounted Thousands in Fines
The man, longtime homeless, has amassed roughly $30,000 worth of citations in Madison Municipal Court in a cycle of repeated tickets, arrest warrants and jail.
He’s among a small group of homeless people in the city who have received thousands, even tens of thousands, of dollars in citations with scant chance of ever paying them off.
Some in the group suffer from drug and alcohol addictions, mental health issues, and unemployment, and they tend to commit violations related to those challenges — public intoxication, trespass, public urination, retail theft — city officials and homeless advocates say.
Those factors can cause some to get trapped in a cycle: They don’t show up for court, fines mount and bad behavior continues, leading police to seek court warrants that land the offenders in jail.
It happens over and over. In 2015, 18 homeless people were issued a combined 119 arrest warrants and owed a total of $254,148.
But now, due to the efforts of Municipal Court Judge Dan Koval and nonprofits Dane County TimeBank, YWCA Madison and Operation Welcome Home and other partners, the man and others are getting a chance to get court fines reduced or dismissed through a pilot “homeless court” if they stay out of trouble and get help improving their lives.
Last year, Koval had an idea for a restorative justice court that would concentrate on issues confronting people who had a lot of cases in Municipal Court. The concept, he said, is similar to such courts for juveniles, drunken driving, drug offenses and veterans.
“The traditional court system doesn’t always address these issues,” Koval said. “I have been a big proponent of restorative justice programs because they work at addressing the root problems and provide resources to work at resolving those issues.”
In 2015, the city provided $10,000 for a pilot homeless court, and two people are now in the process of following through with its recommendations. The city budgeted another $10,000, and advocates expect another three people to move through the court process in the first six months of this year.
Z! Haukeness, an organizer with Operation Welcome Home, a community of homeless people and allies in Madison organizing around root causes of homelessness, applauded the effort. “We need to stop giving out these tickets for crimes of poverty and people living in this situation,” he said.
Most homeless who get citations show up at court, arrange payment plans or public service, and take care of the responsibility, Koval and others stressed.
But for some, the system results in an unending cycle. Some toss citations away or don’t get complete information or understand the court process. Most don’t have addresses to get court notices. Those who don’t show up for court automatically get maximum fines.
The citations “pile up and add up to a lot of money,” Dane County TimeBank founder and co-director Stephanie Rearick said. “It gets to the point it’s fairly insurmountable. They’re not going to pay tens of thousands of dollars. They’re not going to pay off a debt to society. It’s not going to happen.”
Then, the police deal with behaviors on the street. For those making trouble with a lot of fines, the police ask the city attorney’s office to pursue a warrant from Koval.
Former Ald. Brenda Konkel, an advocate for the homeless, has been compiling data on fines and warrants for presentation to the City-County Homeless Issues Committee. Her preliminary analysis shows 37 homeless people owing large sums of money were issued 378 warrants between February 2013 and August 2015. The majority of offenses, she said, were related to alcohol, trespassing, disorderly conduct and panhandling.
The city attorney’s office then compiled data for 2015 and shared it with the City-County Homeless Issues Committee on Monday. It showed 16 men and two women owing the total $254,148, with four individuals owing more than $30,000 and six others owing between $10,000 and $20,000.
Under state law, a municipal court judge can cut amounts owed by at least $50 a day for jail time and, by considering multiple tickets, impose stays of up to 90 days on a single judgment. Koval reduces amounts owed by $100 a day and only sentences offenders to jail for single citations, a maximum four days for a $439 ticket for offenses like disorderly conduct or trespassing.
But even for a short jail stay, a homeless person with a line on housing or a job can lose those opportunities, Konkel said.
In that landscape, the Homelessness Restorative Justice Project is taking shape.
The early part of 2015 was spent preparing for the court. In the fall, advocates identified three people who had substantial fines and might be willing to participate. One dropped out but two remain in the program.
To start, men separately met in a “restorative justice circle” of homeless peers, advocates, and potential service providers to forge agreements that were presented to Koval, who later approved their plans.
The man owing about $30,000 must continue public sobriety, maintain housing, explore job opportunities in interest areas, keep meetings with a health care provider, volunteer with Operation Fresh Start or Bethel Lutheran Church, and complete a follow-up restorative justice circle.
In exchange, the court checks his progress in 90-day intervals, and with compliance, cuts the fines owed in half each time. At the end of a year, the man will owe 200 hours of community service.
“It takes something insurmountable to something surmountable,” Rearick said. “It helps them out of the predicament they’re in. It’s not like letting people off the hook.”
It’s not easy, Rearick said. The person is dealing with basics like shelter and food, and may still be dealing with mental health or substance abuse problems or post-traumatic stress. “People have a lot of other things going on,” she said.
The key component, like all restorative courts, is that the person has to be willing to participate and follow through with the program, said Koval, who has not issued a warrant for a homeless person related to court citations this year.
The homeless court won’t work in every situation, Koval added, but it could also be effective for those who still struggle with smaller sums owed and could benefit from support services.
The long-term vision is to have restorative justice be an option for everyone who gets into trouble and to shift how the city deals with homelessness, Rearick said.
“If the pilot is successful we would like to expand the program to more individuals,” Koval said. “Even if it is not completely successful, it is worth the effort to try programs like this. The current system does not adequately address the root problems, so an alternative like this is worth pursuing and supporting.”