Normally, Judge Kathleen Coffey presides over a spacious courtroom in West Roxbury. But on the third Thursday of each month, Coffey dons her black robe and heads into a small conference room at the Pine Street Inn in the South End.
This is Homeless Court, where Coffey hears misdemeanor and nonviolent felony cases involving warrants for missed court dates or probation violations. Homeless people are notorious for racking up warrants — because they don’t plan well and are afraid of being held on bail, Coffey said — which can prevent them from getting jobs or finding housing.
Defendants who prove they are committed to treatment for substance abuse, job training, or mental health counseling can get their cases dismissed.
“We’re rewarding people for good behavior, so it’s the exact opposite of what we do in customary court,” said Coffey, 61, who oversees the West Roxbury division of Boston Municipal Court and created Homeless Court in 2011, based on a model in San Diego.
So far, about 400 people have gone through the screening process for Homeless Court, and more than 125 have had their cases resolved. In January, the court’s jurisdiction expanded beyond Boston to include District Court cases from around the state, opening the door to help more defendants.
The court is efficient because it can consolidate appearances in one location, Coffey said, lowering transportation and public defender expenses. It also reduces police, shelter, and public assistance costs by helping people clear their records and get back on their feet. “It makes financial and economic sense, and also makes sense in terms of human dignity,” Coffey said.
As in any courtroom, everyone rises when the judge enters Homeless Court. But unlike in other courtrooms, each dismissal elicits a round of applause, led by Coffey.
“Everyone is here today because they support your efforts,” she told a defendant at the July session.
To another, a woman trying to clear up an old drug charge, Coffey said:
“It sounds like you had some bad luck, some rough spots, and this warrant is interfering.”
Outside the courtroom, after her case was dismissed, the woman looked up at the ceiling: “Thank God, thank you Jesus.”
“The very reason why I became a judge was to try and help people, to change lives, to address the needs of the most vulnerable,” Coffey said. “It’s also very humbling because you do realize there but for the grace of God go each and every one of us.”