Imagine that you don’t have a home.
After a long day spent in the hot summer sun, carrying all your belongings on your back or in a shopping cart, you’re arrested for public intoxication, jaywalking, trespassing or any one of the other infractions that people experiencing homelessness tend to violate more than anyone else.
If you’re picked up near, say, 2100 South and 700 East in Salt Lake City, you’ll have a much different experience moving through the court system than if you’re arrested just a few blocks away on 300 East in neighboring South Salt Lake.
That’s because the capital city is the only one in Salt Lake County that currently has a court specifically serving members of the homeless population — an effort to address not only minor offenses but also the fear, misunderstanding and other obstacles the community may face when dealing with the court system.
“[If] you get one kind of justice one place and another kind of justice another place, you might be able to argue that that is not equitable,” said Salt Lake City Justice Court Judge John Baxter. His homeless court is able to pull warrants in West Valley City and South Salt Lake but cannot adjudicate cases in any areas outside the capital’s boundaries.
“To arrive at perfect equality across the board, you’d have to have an algorithm into which you plug facts and then spit out something that all you have to do is read it out,” he continued. But, in his view, it "would be more equitable to have that kind of access” to homeless court more widely.
As the homeless population disperses across the county and into neighboring ones — and with three new homeless resource centers set to come on line later this year that may exacerbate that trend — more municipalities are looking at how to provide equitable justice to some of their most vulnerable residents.
South Salt Lake, home to the Salt Lake County jail and an under-construction homeless shelter, is considering opening its own court specifically for this population.
And Ogden, the largest city in Weber County, which has been experiencing skyrocketing numbers of people experiencing homelessness, in January created a once-a-month court at the Lantern House shelter there to deal specifically with these cases.
During his 15 years as a prosecutor in Ogden, Greg Burdett said he watched the way people experiencing homelessness interact with the criminal justice system.
“They just give up and don’t even try to come and deal with it because I’m assuming it seems so overwhelming that they say, ‘What’s the bother?’” he said. “‘I don’t have money. I don’t have the position to do anything about it. I’ll wait until they make me stay in jail.’”
He sees the new court as a way not to provide “special treatment” but to make a challenging process a little less onerous — especially because nonviolent misdemeanors, if ignored, can lead to arrest warrants that serve as barriers to accessing services and housing and to landing jobs.
South Salt Lake Mayor Cherie Wood said she is supportive of the court concept but doesn’t anticipate it will be implemented by the time the city’s 300-bed men’s resource center, located at 3380 S. 1000 West near the county jail, is expected to open in late September.
“My priority right now is finalizing the Conditional Use Permit for the South Salt Lake Homeless Resource Center to ensure its success — both for the homeless and our residents,” she wrote in an email. “And I’m inclined to give the Resource Center some time to open and operate for a while so we can better identify the needs and location for a homeless justice solution.”
Wood and other South Salt Lake leaders have long been resistant to placing a shelter within their boundaries, pointing to the city’s small tax base and the burden it already carries for providing services they contend would not be tolerated in wealthier municipalities. The other two resource centers will be located in Salt Lake City.
South Salt Lake Justice Court Judge Anna Anderson expects to see an increase in citations for people experiencing homelessness within her municipality as a result of dispersal. She eventually would like to see space made within the city’s new resource center to help the population take care of its legal needs.
“Having court at the shelter allows us to address those cases with those individuals who may not otherwise come to court because they don’t have the resources, they don’t have a desire, they don’t have the trust,” she said. “So we’re hoping we can build a model similar to the one in Salt Lake City, where we bring that access to justice to them.”
‘Resolution and dignity’
To get a resolution in Salt Lake City’s homeless court, which has been operating since 2004, people experiencing homelessness are required to plead guilty to misdemeanor offenses and waive their trial rights.
The upside is that rather than levying a fine (a camping ordinance violation, for example, can carry a penalty of up to $1,000 per ticket) judges offer people the opportunity to pay their debts back to society through community service or treatment hours.
That gives them the chance to “utilize the resource that the individuals I am seeing have,” Baxter said, “which is time.”
The judge said he doesn’t adjudicate cases differently for people experiencing homelessness — he just provides different punishments. But the twice-a-month proceedings, held every other Friday on the second floor of the Weigand Homeless Day Center, don’t feel like a typical court; and Baxter, with his tattoo-sleeved arms and street clothes, doesn’t feel like a typical judge.
“I don’t have a robe when I’m out there,” he said in a recent interview in his courtroom at Salt Lake City’s Justice Court. “I want it to be … I’m not sure ‘inviting’ is the right word. But I want there to be as few barriers as possible for a group of people who generally don’t come to court anyway.”
Utah is one of at least 10 states where municipalities have developed homeless courts, according to the National Center for State Courts.
Many people who come to Baxter’s court in Salt Lake City have multiple cases. On a recent Friday afternoon, the court resolved more than 20, which ranged from lewdness and public urination to intoxication and theft. Judges estimate they generally resolve around 30 to 40 cases a week, or 60 to 80 a month.
Volunteer paralegals supply forms, and pro-bono lawyers from the Salt Lake Legal Defender Association counsel clients about their cases. The judges (Salt Lake City has at least two besides Baxter) take time to explain what’s going on with each case and what a defendant’s options are. And they make it a point to speak clearly, without using legal jargon, Baxter said.
People experiencing homelessness are often concerned about being arrested and losing the few belongings they have, Baxter said, so it helps them to know they won’t be arrested at homeless court — though that doesn’t guarantee they won’t be booked somewhere down the line.
“I’m respectful to those people who are coming into homeless court, and they’re respectful to me back,” he said. “In the whole time that I’ve been out there, I think we’ve had to remove people twice. It just is a place where people know that the atmosphere should be one of resolution and dignity.”
Back in the 1990s, before he became a judge, Baxter used to spend his Sunday mornings under the 500 South viaduct in Salt Lake City, where he would offer free legal advice to people experiencing homelessness at a weekly breakfast.
“I thought without doing a lot of investigation there was probably a big need for legal advice in that community,” he said of that time, when he was fresh out of law school. “I had a sense that the community of people without homes, that these were people who wouldn’t know where to go to access that information.”
So when Baxter pushed to start a homeless court in Salt Lake City a few years later, it didn’t take much time to build rapport with a community that often tends to distrust authority figures.
Mike Priest, 42, has been homeless off and on since the late ’90s and has nothing but good things to say about Baxter, whose courtroom he estimated he’s been in at least twice through the years.
“It seems he supports the homeless people a lot, which is kind of different,” Priest said. “In ‘98, when I got here, they didn’t have support like that. There was nobody. If you got a trespassing ticket, you were doing two weeks in jail for trespassing.”
In the nearly 15 years Linda Langarica, 53, has been homeless, she estimates she’s been through homeless court with Baxter at least eight or nine times, including for possession or use of a controlled substance.
And though she expressed a general distrust of government systems as she worked on her latest community service hours at tai chi for the homeless on a recent sun-dappled morning at the downtown Salt Lake City library, she declared her love for Baxter.
“He’s for the people,” she said. “He’s very fair. He’s not judgmental. He doesn’t categorize us, you know, like everybody else has.”
Building this kind of trust with people experiencing homelessness isn’t easy, acknowledged Anderson, the South Salt Lake Justice Court judge, and that’s one of the major challenges the city anticipates if it launches its own program.
“We were told with the South Salt Lake homeless court that we should probably expect when we start that we’ll have maybe one or two people show up and that we have to be in there and we have to show our faces and let people know that we’re there to help them and to help the community,” she said. “We’re not just there to put people in jail; that’s not what we want to do through this program.”
The homeless court in Ogden is currently moving forward on a temporary basis, according to Burdett, Ogden’s city prosecutor. But six months of anecdotal evidence show it might already be making a difference.
“So far I’m pleased with it,” he said. “We’ve got some successful people that have moved on and they’ve been able to get jobs and housing and they can get this court case behind them. So, so far, it seems to be worth the effort.”