The Judiciary Committee of the City Council of Oklahoma City met Tuesday after the City Council meeting to discuss focused “homeless court” proceedings for people involved in the municipal legal system while experiencing homelessness.
The Committee is made up of the City Councilors from Wards 5, 6, 7, and 8, and is attended by Council and Municipal Court staff.
Several Oklahoma City Municipal Court staff visited San Diego two years ago to research that city’s reportedly successful model for “Homeless Court.” The purpose of the program is to connect people experiencing homelessness with needed services rather than repeatedly assessing fines and jailing those who are entrenched in those cycles of poverty.
The planned project for Oklahoma City’s focused court proceedings would mirror San Diego’s in many ways.
The court would meet in an informal space at the Oklahoma City Day Shelter at the Homeless Alliance’s West Town campus. This would create a less intimidating environment for defendants on the docket who face significant barriers to attending traditional court dockets.
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Service providers would be the driving force in connecting their clients with the alternative court program. If able to share data with the city, service providers could identify clientele with a high number of municipal court interactions. They could engage their client in the program and use the opportunity to have fines drastically reduced or even waived entirely to leverage their client’s participation in needed services.
An identified participant would be enrolled in the program and then would receive services for a period before having to stand before a judge and prosecutor. As outcomes are observed the practice would move toward standardization of fine reductions and waivers.
This system depends on prior engagement and participation in services on the part of an identified candidate for the program.
The program requires some sharing of data between the Oklahoma City Municipal Court and the city-wide Homeless Management Information System (HMIS). The items in Municipal Court are a matter of public information, so there is no difficulty in sharing that information with service providers. Information stored in HMIS, however, is considered health information that is protected by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). That information requires a specific revocable waiver on the part of a participant or a court order to be shared.
That requirement means that the city and the Continuum of Care providers are challenged to share proper information to identify appropriate participants. The city’s information on a particular defendant doesn’t always indicate with certainty if that defendant is experiencing homelessness. Similarly, without looking for the information on an individual basis service providers may not know which of their clients are facing multiple municipal charges.
Ward 8 Councilman Mark Stonecipher said that he would like to see the program start with quarterly dockets. In order to move forward on this, participation by the Homeless Alliance needs to be secured or another service provision avenue will need to be identified.
Defense attorneys will also be needed for this program. Stonecipher said that he would research three organizations to find if they would be able to provide defense services. The Young Lawyers Division of the Oklahoma Bar Association, the Oklahoma City Association of Black Lawyers, and Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma’s Pro Bono attorneys list were all discussed as possible resources for free or affordable assistance in this program.
Stonecipher, Ward 6 Councilwoman JoBeth Hamon, and Ward 7 Councilwoman Nikki Nice voted unanimously to move forward on establishing this program anticipating the first of the quarterly dockets to take place in January 2020.
Dan Straughan, Executive Director of the Homeless Alliance, said that the idea of participants in the program having case management is great, but that many times people experiencing homelessness might only have a loose association with case management, if any at all. Straughan points out that in the last year at the Oklahoma City Day Shelter, client advocates have each seen 1,000 or more people needing services.
“As with real estate, the question of location is all-important in this,” Straughan said. Having the docket at a shelter will ameliorate some of the mistrust that will be inevitable among participants coming in. “We can work on getting these individuals there for a docket, but we need to make sure they understand we’re not going to cart you off to jail.”
When asked about the first docket happening in January, Straughan said that it’s possible to get ready for that, but that the final quarter of the year is the busiest time in services for people experiencing homelessness. “But I think we can do it.”
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