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Mesa court helps homeless, mentally ill defendants stay out of jail

Arricka Cox (KTAR News Photo/Griselda Zetino)

PHOENIX — Arricka Cox was homeless for six years. She was in and out of jail, mostly for trespassing charges in her Mesa neighborhood.

“Anyone I knew, any friends that I had lived there – that’s where any of my stuff was at, so I had to be there,” she said. “I wasn’t causing any harm or doing anything to anyone.”

The last time she was caught trespassing, she faced six months in jail and nearly $3,000 in fines. But all that was dropped thanks to Community Court.

Community Court consists of a judge, a defense attorney and a prosecutor. But instead of reaching a guilty or innocent verdict, they come up with a plan to improve the lives of defendants.

“The model we looked at was let’s come up with a way that helps people rebuild their lives and move into self-sustainability,” said Mesa Police Detective Aaron Raine.

He said Community Court is geared toward people facing non-violent offenses, including trespassing, shoplifting and some drug use and possession. Most of the participants are homeless, have an addiction or have mental health issues.

They get connected with navigators who work for various nonprofits and faith-based groups, including Community Bridges and Lutheran Indian Ministries. To have their charges dropped, defendants must complete a list of steps navigators set for them to help improve their lives.

“The reality is if you’re addicted to drugs, if you’re homeless or if you’re mentally ill and not stable, the deterrence model of law enforcement does not work,” Raine said.

“You’re going to steal to feed your addiction. You’re going to steal to feed yourself,” he added. “If you’re not mentally stable, you’re going to act in a manner that will probably get you arrested in many cases.”

Community Court is currently only offered in Mesa. The Arizona Supreme Court recently recognized it with an innovation award for its “new approach in response to the many cases that involve homelessness with associated mental illness or substance abuse.”

“The Community Court is centered around the concept that these defendants are members of the community and that the community needs to be involved in responding to the many critical needs of these persons,” a statement from the state’s Supreme Court read.

Community Court is proving to be effective.

Since launching in July, 65 people have graduated from Community Court and have had their charges dismissed. They accounted for about 1,000 arrests over the last decade and nearly 3,500 police contacts. Only three have been rearrested.

Raine pointed to a man who was arrested more than 90 times in the last 10 years, five of which he was in prison, and went through Community Court. He has been sober for seven months and is now a navigator.

“His life trajectory is 180 degrees different than it was beforehand, and to see that, it’s unbelievable,” Raine said.

For Cox, Community Court required her to go through counseling to get her charges dropped. She’s now a licensed massage therapist, is no longer homeless and said her life has completely changed.

“I’m more grateful,” she said. “It shows through my work. I’m more patient with my work and more understanding with different demographics that I work with.”

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