Boston’s Homeless Court helps defendants get a fresh start
The moment before the court officer called out “All rise!” Kevin Craddock glanced over his shoulder. The 19-year-old wanted to assure himself he was in the right place.
“Sometimes it’s kind of surreal,” Craddock explained later. “I’m an addict, recovering, but an addict. So I’ve been around the legal system a lot, but never like this.”
His defense attorney, Anna Brickman, was there, as was veteran Boston Municipal Court Judge Kathleen Coffey, probation officer David Giacalone, and a handful of social workers and public defenders. They were not seated in a courtroom, however. Craddock’s hearing was taking place in a brightly lit conference room at Jamaica Plain’s Lemuel Shattuck Hospital.
Homeless Court was in session.
Launched in late 2010, the program aims to serve the unique needs of Boston’s homeless defendants, who often find themselves cycling through the court system for minor, nonviolent offenses, or in contempt for failing to respond to court summonses they often don’t receive because they’re living on the streets.
It’s a gentler form of justice, but no quick fix. Defendants like Craddock who volunteer for Homeless Court are required to make a yearlong commitment. During that time, they get mental health and substance abuse counseling and a bed at the Pine Street Inn, or, for those with more severe mental health or addiction issues, at Shattuck Hospital. Defendants without a high school diploma are offered tutoring and GED prep classes. All are required to brush up their job skills or learn new ones.
The payoff? Those who complete the program have their fines forgiven, minor records wiped clean, and current cases dismissed — as close to a fresh start as they are likely to get.
“That whole thing of getting another chance was pretty important to me, because I really haven’t done anything with my life since I was a kid,” Craddock said. “So a chance to start over is huge.”
Homeless Court got its start here when retired municipal court judge Maurice Richardson approached Charles Johnson, chief justice of Boston Municipal Court, two years ago with an idea. During more than two decades on the bench, Richardson observed that more than 40 percent of adults who filter through Boston’s criminal courts for minor offenses are homeless or without stable homes.
Richardson suggested that Boston organize a homeless court, a system he’d seen years earlier in San Diego, which launched the first program in the United States in 1989.
“The thing it did — several things, really — was offer genuine help to people who were simply not getting better in the criminal courts,” Richardson said. “People who would do their time and then go back on the street in as bad a shape as they ever were, a burden to themselves and the community around them.”
At this point, Boston’s program is, admittedly, small. Since Judge Coffey began hearing cases in early 2011, 19 defendants — ages 19 to 66 — with 33 pending criminal cases have been through the program. Their violations range from drug possession to petty theft and public drunkenness. Almost all faced jail time, if not for their violations, then for missing court dates and not paying fines.
Because there’s no direct funding for Boston’s Homeless Court, Coffey can only hold sessions when she can squeeze them into her judicial calendar, which means quarterly, as opposed to monthly, as they do in San Diego. Seventeen defendants are currently in the Boston program.
One of them is Craddock, a baby-faced young man with sandy brown hair who sat in the Shattuck conference room on a recent Tuesday morning. Craddock grew up on a quiet street in Dorchester, started using drugs when he was still a kid, and has been homeless on and off since he was 15. Hooked on heroin, he dropped out of Jeremiah E. Burke High School in 11th grade.
Brickman, the public defender, approached Craddock in Municipal Court in February 2011, after seeing him scolded for not showing up for hearings and not paying fines associated with a prior arrest for drug posession. He was facing a jail sentence of 30 days to six months. She told him about the program.
“You could hear it in his voice and see it in his face that he was ready,” Coffey said. “Rock bottom is a tough place to be, and you know it when you see it.”
There are only two requirements for defendants to qualify for Boston’s Homeless Court: a nonviolent or minor criminal record, and a sincere willingness to accept help. Craddock jumped at the chance.
“I had been sleeping in cars for a while. I’d break into cars just to sleep in them,” Craddock said. “So when Anna came to me, I knew it must’ve been meant to happen, ’cause seriously, I was done. I just needed a way out.”
Coffey, chief judge in the Roxbury Division of Boston’s Municipal Court, serves as the city’s lone Homeless Court judge.
“If you subscribe to the idea that there is room for treatment, for compassion, and, most important, orderly recoveries, then this system makes perfect sense,” Coffey said. “These are people whose lives to varying degrees have fallen apart. And frankly it wasn’t and isn’t a good use of muncipal and criminal court resources to continue presenting them with fines and putting them in jail.”
People ‘who’ve lost time’
Coffey’s Homeless Court meets for formal sessions at Shattuck Hospital every 12 weeks, where, as in a traditional courtroom, she’s given status updates by social workers, prosecutors, and defense lawyers, and hears arguments if there’s disagreement on how well a defendant is doing.
Most important to Coffey, however, is hearing from the defendants.
She learned in Craddock’s first hearing in early March that he grew up in the city, remains in touch with his family, and has absolutely no hobbies or casual pastimes because his only interest since he was 11 years old has been getting high.
Christina Rossi, a substance abuse counselor at the Pine Street Inn, where Craddock was assigned to live upon being accepted in the Homeless Court program (he has since moved to a halfway house), said his situation was a common one.
“Often you have defendants who’ve lost time,” Rossi said. “They know where they were generally, but what they were doing was wasting their lives through their addictions or untreated mental health concerns. But Kevin is doing great. He doesn’t miss meetings. He attends extra group counseling without being pushed to do it.”
Any indication that defendants are slacking off in therapy and work-training, and Coffey can boot them out of the program and back into the criminal court system.
“I haven’t had to do that yet though,” she said.
Still, in a program designed for a homeless population, there are obvious challenges. Some court sessions are packed with as many as 20 defendants. At others — like the late June hearing Craddock attended — only one defendant shows up. Many are on the streets, after all, because they find the normal demands of ordinary life simply too hard.
“They’ve been known to cave to the pressure of even living under a roof,” said Giacalone, the probation officer. He’s a former prison guard who helped Coffey get Homeless Court off the ground and supervises participants.
A few defendants, chafing under the program’s strict rules, have absconded for a few hours or even a day or two, Giacalone said. But in every case they’ve returned to complete the program.
“Often, the homeless people who get the most out of this are those who’ve determined that they simply want no part of any court system, not even an alternative one,” he said. “Those are the people who put their heads down, work hard through the program, and have a plan for when they finish.”
Going clean and sober
Brian Campbell is one of those people.
A South Boston native, Campbell, 34, entered the Homeless Court program in March 2011 and completed it one year later. He has since resumed his career as a commercial painter and is preparing to wed his pregnant fiancee this fall.
But when he first arrived at the Edward W. Brooke Municipal Courthouse 18 months ago, he expected to leave in handcuffs.
He faced a long overdue hearing for unpaid fines connected to a misdemeanor drug possession conviction.
He’d already served several short stints in jail for possession and disorderly conduct for refusing to cooperate with officers who tried to search him for drugs.
He’d been living on the streets on and off for more than four years, including stretches when he was on cocaine benders.
“It wasn’t that I’d done something really bad,” Campbell said, recalling that day in court. “It’s just that I had been missing court dates for a couple months already. I had some loitering and trespassing stuff, some posession stuff. It’s usually stuff that gets you tickets or fines. But I was homeless. I couldn’t pay fines. And there was nowhere for them to send me notices for follow-up court dates. So I was in contempt. I should have gone to jail, the way the system works.”
A public defender pulled him aside and told Campbell he had an out if he really wanted it.
He was one of the first five candidates accepted into Homeless Court, and he finished the program with all his goals met. He got an intensive refresher in painting, a skill for which he’d been trained in his late teens and early 20s, and even had training in general carpentry. And though he doesn’t drive and has a phobia about crowded public transportation, Campbell is back working as a painter.
Cambell is also sober and remains so, he says, thanks to family support and 12-step meetings at a church in his South Boston neighborhood. He’s back in touch with his two children, who live with their mother, and hopes soon to have a formal visitation agreement in place.
“I am a different person now,” Campbell said. “It used to be comfortable for me to go to jail. Now, I think, ‘What kind of life was that?’ ”
Progress, one step at a time
Back in his hearing at Shattuck, Craddock listened intently as Coffey peppered him with questions.
Remind the court of how you found yourself in this position.
“Your honor, I’ve been addicted to something — different substances for years, almost half my life.”
And tell us again, were you homeless for long before learning about the Homeless Court?
“Off and on for anywhere for a few months at a time to six months or longer.”
Your attorney and your counselors seem to feel like you’re making great progress. The prosecution agrees. Do you agree?
“I do. It’s one step at a time, but this is the longest stretch of time — nearly four months now — that I’ve been sober since I was in middle school.”
The questions continued till Judge Coffey, satisfied that Craddock was sticking with the program, urged him to keep it up for the nine months he has left under supervision, formally dismissed the criminal case against him, and asked everyone in the conference room to give him a round of applause.
“In regular court, you can ditch it in a way,” Craddock said. “What I mean is, if you’re lucky enough to not get locked up, you can go home or wherever and forget about what happened in court. You can’t do that with Homeless Court. Some part of the program is with you throughout the day, every day. It has sort of become my life. It’ll help me find my own life by the time my year is up.”
James H. Burnett III can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JamesBurnett.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed a quote by Judge Kathleen Coffey to public defender Anna Brickman.