Phoenix could create special court for people experiencing homelessness

By Christina Estes
Published: Tuesday, June 27, 2023 - 4:45am
Updated: Tuesday, June 27, 2023 - 8:50am

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phoenix municipal court building
Christina Estes/KJZZ
Phoenix Municipal Court building downtown.

The Phoenix City Council will be asked Wednesday to approve more than $2 million to create a new court for people experiencing homelessness. 

It’s called community court. It’s designed like other specialty courts operating in Phoenix — there’s one for veterans only and one for people with behavioral health issues. The goal for all specialty courts is the same: to provide resources so people can overcome underlying issues.

“I think that the word 'services' is sometimes hidden, people think of it euphemistically, we’re going to give them a pat on the head, a cookie and an apology. That’s not what services looks like,” said David Ward, director of the city’s Public Defenders Office. “It’s not a cakewalk. These people have to go to counseling, they have to behave, they have to play by the rules. Their lives are very structured for a very long time, sometimes for a couple of years. They have to earn everything they get.”

"They have to earn everything they get."
— David Ward, director of Phoenix Public Defenders

Councilmembers of the public safety subcommittee recently heard the $2.3 million sales pitch. It calls for adding 11 full-time positions to run the court and hiring 10 navigators to work directly with unsheltered people — that involves people already in jail and those referred to the court.

The request is in addition to nearly $150 million Phoenix’s Office of Homeless Solutions has committed to shelters, supportive housing and behavioral health services in the past two years. 

Councilman Jim Waring expressed frustration over what he sees as a lack of progress, “It certainly looks a lot worse than it did even a couple years ago and certainly dramatically worse than 10 years ago.”

He wanted assurances that someone who is violent or poses a public safety threat would go through traditional court, not community court. Staff said common offenses are considered low level, like shoplifting and trespassing and no one accused of assault or domestic violence would be eligible. Waring said he would support that.

“If it’s going to streamline the process and maybe get the services faster to people that it might actually help, fine. But it is very disheartening to see what’s been going on,” he said.

“This isn't about taking away accountability, it’s about adding additional accountability,” said Scott Hall, deputy director for Phoenix’s Office of Homeless Solutions. “A lot of our folks that are out there suffering on the streets have given up on hope, they've given up on society, they've given up on themselves.”

He speaks from personal experience.

“I have a past, I've come out of that past, and I’ve worked hard to come through that. But I didn’t come through that alone. It took a village of people to support me when I just wanted to give up and crawl into a hole. And a lot of our people feel that way. So I'm very encouraged about this opportunity for people,” Hall said.

"It took a village of people to support me when I just wanted to give up and crawl into a hole."
— Scott Hall, deputy director of Office of Homeless Solutions

trash outside tents
Christina Estes/KJZZ
Trash outside tents near Ninth Avenue and Jackson Street on Feb. 5, 2020.

The proposal is modeled after Mesa’s community court. Since July 2020, Mesa has invited 3,272 unsheltered people to participate. Of those, 305 have graduated from the program. Twenty-two graduates  — or 7% — have returned to community court.

After researching Mesa’s program and seeing success in Phoenix’s other specialty courts, Councilwoman Ann O’Brien advocated for a community court.

“What is important to me in this program is that it is individualized, that people will be screened," she said. "They will not get a free pass. Anyone who knows me knows that I believe in accountability and consequences. And consequences can be good or bad.”

"And consequences can be good or bad."
— Councilwoman Ann O'Brien

O’Brien highlighted the case of a Phoenix woman arrested for using drugs who graduated from a specialty court, “She was thankful for the officers who arrested her, she was thankful for the system and thankful to be able to graduate from that program so that she could return to being the mom that her kids deserved.”

Phoenix’s community court might require someone to attend counseling, get a state ID, or apply for food stamps. They could also get help reconnecting with friends or family and finding a job.

Vice Mayor Yassamin Ansari said customized plans will be key, “One of those steps could be an individual adhering to securing stable housing. I think we’ve seen that wraparound support at our shelter, whether it's the Washington Street shelter or some of the new ones that we have, has been very effective.” 

Several community groups support the new court. Jeff Spellman with the Violence Impact Project told council members that trespassing and drug use cause real harm to neighborhoods.

“It creates the cycle of crime where people are just coming right back out on the street and nothing’s done. That visit to jail for a day really does nothing to change the situation, so this model we know will work,” he said.

"This model we know will work."
— Jeff Spellman, Violence Impact Project

Graduates could see their cases dismissed, a charge reduced or a sentence suspended. Those who drop out or fail will return to regular court. If the council approves, community court could be in session in January. 

Community Court would include employees from municipal court, the Prosecutor’s Office, the Public Defender’s Office and homeless solutions. According to a city report, the process includes three primary steps:

1. Needs Assessment and Screening — During this step, the Community Court Team meet to discuss the individual. Once approved, the navigator provides the individual with the option for Community Court. If the individual accepts, a customized services plan is then created.

2. Customized Service Plan — The plan details the required progress for the individual to proceed through the Community Court. An example of a milestone in the service plan could include establishing more stable housing. While progressing through the customized service plan, the individual will have regular court appearances and the Community Court Team will update the service plan based on the program participation. 

3. Resolution — If the individual is able to complete their customized service plan, the individual will graduate from Phoenix Community Court. This graduation will result in either the dismissal of the person's case, a reduced charge or a suspended sentence. If the individual does not complete their customized service plan, the individual will not graduate from the Phoenix Community Court and will be returned to regular court proceedings.

Here’s the breakdown for the $2.3 million annual cost of establishing the court with $45,000 for three vehicles and other equipment, per the council report:

The 11 full-time positions will include the following: 

  • Assistant city attorney III in the Public Defender's Office 
  • Legal assistant in the Public Defender's Office 
  • Casework services coordinator in the Public Defender's Office 
  • Two attorney IIIs in the Prosecutor's Office
  • Court/legal clerk I in the Prosecutor's Office 
  • Legal assistant in the Prosecutor's Office 
  • Administrative assistant II in the Prosecutor's Office
  • Two bailiffs in the Municipal Court 
  • Program manager in the Office of Homeless Solutions

 The 10 contracted staff will include the following: 

  • One lead navigator helping manage the entire navigation team 
  • Two court navigators focused on working with individuals identified in regular court proceedings 
  • Three external navigators engaged throughout the community at the early stages of the Community Court process 
  • Four jail navigators to assist individuals entering through Jail Court

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