Outreach Court offers fresh start

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By Steve Thorpe

Legal News

 

After years of intermittent homelessness, petty thievery and other brushes with the law, Dennis Sloan had resolved to get back on the right track, but was wary of trying to shed the weighty legal baggage he was dragging around.

“The legal system scared the bejeezus out of me,” Sloan says. “My history was: go to court, go to jail.”

Then he discovered Street Outreach Court Detroit (SOCD). The court not only helped him with his legal issues, but made it possible for him to completely turn his life around. 

SOCD hosted its “One-Year Anniversary Celebration” on June 25 at the Capuchin Soup Kitchen in Detroit. 

In addition to those who have been helped by the program, all the stakeholders and sponsors gathered to celebrate a year of helping the homeless with their legal problems.

SOCD is a joint effort of the 36th District Court and Detroit Action Commonwealth, with support from other public and private agencies and organizations.

“Homeless courts” as they are sometimes called, are intended to give homeless and nearly homeless people an opportunity to get a fresh start by getting out from under legal impediments by resolving many civil infractions and misdemeanors, including warrants.

The concept began with San Diego’s Stand Down program, a program to provide comprehensive services to veterans. Eventually, they added an off-site “courtroom” to provide a non-threatening environment to help veterans address their outstanding legal issues. The program eventually evolved into a regular, monthly program of San Diego’s court.

San Diego Attorney Steve Binder of the Public Defender’s Office, originally from Michigan, was the originator and driving force for the program and came all the way from California for the SOCD anniversary program. 

“He’s the ‘father’ of street courts for the nation,” said Miller. “He travels all over the country to help people set up street outreach courts. We are so indebted to him and we hope we’ve made him proud.”

Binder says that it was reaching out to veterans in trouble that sparked the idea that special legal measures were needed to help them get back on their feet.

“It was homeless veterans who first gave rise to the need for homeless court,” he said. “One in five homeless veterans said they needed help with outstanding warrants. We resolved literally thousands of cases the first four years. And it eventually spread to the general homeless population.”

In the SOCD program, participants must create and complete an “action plan” of measurable efforts to address the causes of their problems. These actions often include job training, education, such as a GED, and alcohol and drug rehabilitation.

If the action plan is successfully completed, judges and prosecutors review the participant’s file to ensure that they are entitled to relief. A final hearing of court is held at the Capuchin Soup Kitchen, where relief is granted.

Sloan was one of the first participants in the SOCD program.  He now works in a paid position with the Detroit Action Commonwealth and is a big booster of SOCD.

“In 2002 I came back to Detroit  because my brother was ill and he had become a quadriplegic. He died in April 2003,” Sloan said. “Between December of 2002 and December 2003, I also lost my mother, two of my uncles, my mother in law and two cousins. After the death of my mother, I wasn’t emotionally prepared to deal with it. I kind of dropped out of society. I made a lot of mistakes, including smoking crack. I jumped into a degraded lifestyle with both feet.”

He had hit rock bottom and had repeated brushes with the legal system. But he eventually decided he needed to make changes in his life. 

“There was something from my mother saying to me, ‘This is not you.’ So I was trying to make it back. I was eating at St. Leo’s Soup Kitchen when I overheard something about the Detroit Action Commonwealth. I got involved with them because they were an organization that wasn’t just talk, they actually did things.”

That led to his involvement with SOCD. He believes that the location and informality of the court allows people who usually run in the opposite direction to work with the court to turn their lives around. 

“How Street Court really helps is that otherwise I would be hurting my community,” Sloan said. “Now, instead of helping tear down my community, I’m building it up. I’m a taxpayer now!”

Leonard Rilett was one of the participants who had his case addressed in the court session before the celebration. In addition to homelessness, Rilett had been dealing with cancer, for which he’s still being treated. He needed to get his traffic record cleared so that he could recover his driver’s license and work as a driver.

“The license will help me secure better opportunities in my current job and also, most importantly, guarantee that I get to my medical appointments on time,” he said. “People become intimidated by their life situation and don’t realize that there are programs that can help. I would strongly recommend this to another person in that situation because my experience had been positive.”

The SOCD website at http:// socd.streetdemocracy.org/ outlines the goals and methods of the organization and also includes statistics that demonstrate the effectiveness of the program.

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