New Phoenix court helps those experiencing homelessness through the legal system

Jan 29, 2024, 4:25 AM | Updated: 7:05 am

PHOENIX — Court is now in session — the Phoenix Community Court that is.

It is a new path through the legal system where people experiencing homelessness who are facing low-level criminal charges can receive support instead of traditional punishment. The Community court is located inside the Phoenix Municipal Court Building in downtown Phoenix. Two judges preside over the court and it operates two days a week.

Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego spoke at a media event about how this specialty court will help people.

“Each story is unique, and the Community Court recognizes that and puts caring individuals together with a person experiencing homelessness to find solutions,” Gallego said.

Each person is assigned a city prosecutor who assesses whether someone is eligible for the program. It presents a unique dynamic where prosecutors and defense attorneys work together to create personalized plans.

David Ward, director of the public defender’s office spoke at a media availability after a tour of the Community Court.

“This is an opportunity to … get out of a life of crime, get out of a life of homelessness or where you’re marginally homeless and also take care of this case,” he said.

Services can include mental health treatment, workforce development programs and addiction assistance. Those who complete their individualized plan can have their charges dropped, lowered or suspended.

Phoenix District 1 Councilwoman Ann O’Brien clarified this does not mean that those going through the court get off scot-free. She said participants have a choice between getting the services they need or facing the standard consequences.

“Make no mistake one path is not easier than another. Participants going through the Community Court will be held responsible for their actions. If they do not progress through the steps at a reasonable pace, or if whatever time they choose to stop taking services, then they will return to the normal judicial process and be sentenced like everyone else,” O’Brien said.

The Community Court, public defender’s office and the service organization Community Bridges, Inc. are all located on the same floor to make the process as easy as possible and avoid potential pitfalls where participants simply give up.

“When people come to the court for their arraignment, they go to the second floor,” Ward said. “They’re told to go to the fourth floor just to get a public defender. We lose about between 2%-4% of those people who for whatever reason don’t make it two floors.”

He said that’s amplified for those who are homeless who may be told to come back in 30 days or 90 days.

“Now when we realize their eligible for Community Court, we walk them up to the fourth floor, we get them assigned to the public defender’s office, and then we immediately take them right next door to our suite where CBI will help them begin the process of getting them into services,” Ward said.

He said that provides fewer touchpoints and fewer chances to fail.

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New Phoenix court helps those experiencing homelessness through the legal system