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S.L. court metes out justice to homeless

Dressed in jeans and a casual shirt, Judge John Baxter sits across a nondescript table from a homeless man who has arrest warrants out for trespassing and drinking alcohol in a public park.

Baxter's options are different from those of most judges. Slapping a homeless person with a fine is akin to getting blood from a turnip, and throwing him in jail clogs up the system with little result.

Yet, after the man is ordered to do 30 hours' community service, the gruff-looking guy hands over a verified letter of completion, having done grounds cleaning at the Road Home shelter.

Baxter thanks the man for his effort. "I appreciate it, thank you very much," the man replies, adding he was glad to do it to set things right. Case closed.

For the past year, the homeless court has been an experiment in Salt Lake City Justice Court that police and court officials have lauded as an innovative approach to doling out justice to those on the streets.

There's no hammer and gavel, long black robe or other trappings of a regular court. In fact, Baxter's court is unlike any other in Utah. It is a movement being sparked in other states, modeled after a successful program being run in San Diego.

But make no mistake, this is still a court, and Baxter insists on being called "your honor" and his staff treated with respect.

Still, for a population that is notorious for racking up arrest warrants and flaking out on court dates, the more casual nature of the court has homeless people walking in of their own volition.

"They have difficulty getting into court," Baxter said. "Some have four, five arrest warrants at a time, some as high as 35." Many times, Baxter said, they don't get a chance to shower and some are embarrassed by their appearance.

It's a vicious cycle that many homeless people get caught in. They might get picked up for public intoxication, cited and issued a court date. For some it's mental illness or drug addiction, but for many reasons, they don't show up for court and an arrest warrant is issued.

Baxter said police then pick them up on the warrant, they're booked into jail and released soon after due to crowding.

In a report to the Administrative Office of the Courts, Baxter estimated it costs $465 each time a homeless person is picked up on a warrant and booked into jail. He compared that to the cost of homeless court, which he estimates costs $25.25 to take care of the same warrant.

Baxter and a dedicated staff of clerks and volunteers hold court twice a month at the Bishop Weigand Homeless day center, run by Catholic Community Services. The facility is next to the St. Vincent De Paul center, which serves meals to the homeless in downtown Salt Lake City.

Since opening in May last year, homeless court has adjudicated 381 cases and successfully cleared out 85 of those by ordering community service.

Police who patrol downtown admit they were suspicious of Baxter's court.

"To be honest, I think we were all lukewarm," said Sgt. Todd Mitchell of the Pioneer bicycle patrol division. Mitchell said many officers believed Baxter was letting homeless offenders off the hook and granting lenient sentences.

But when Baxter invited officers to sit in on court proceedings, Mitchell said many realized that Baxter was not being lenient, but innovative in bringing the court to the homeless to take care of unresolved charges.

"He's trying to think outside the box," Mitchell said. "They're having a hard enough time with social issues as it is, and making it easier for them to go through the judicial system, I'm all for it."

On a court day in May, Baxter's room at the Weigand Center is crowded with homeless residents. A volunteer outside screens them before they enter. Those who show up drunk or high are told to come back sober.

One woman comes up and says she wants to take care of a warrant on charges of giving false information to an officer, shoplifting and sexual solicitation. She says she gets scared going into a regular courtroom.

"I get scared that everyone's getting sentenced and I just walk out," she said.

Baxter's court is of limited jurisdiction, which can only deal with infractions and misdemeanor cases. So, he advises the woman to talk to her public defense attorney about her fears and encourages her to take care of the problem in district court before an arrest warrant is issued.

Next, a blond-haired man, arms covered in tattoos, sporting several heavy silver chains, sits down to deal with a trespassing charge. He is a known regular in court.

"What do you want to do with this?" Baxter asks.

"Guilty," the man said. Community service is meted out, and Baxter asks about his wife.

"She's in ICU at LDS Hospital," the man said. After years of drug abuse, her organs are shutting down and she is dying.

Baxter said having worked with the homeless for several years as a defense attorney, he has come to know many of them, including the man's wife in the hospital.

"You see a lot of sad stuff here," Baxter said. "Six months ago a man died in the Jordan River; everybody knew him." Baxter said he has attended more than his share of funerals of homeless people who died from a drug overdose.

Unfortunately, Baxter's court is new and does not have the resources to help even people who ask for drug treatment. Drug offenders are often handled in another specialty court — drug court — but by then, their addiction has to be fairly advanced.

In San Diego's homeless court, a variety of services are made available, including drug treatment, temporary housing and job training, which works with the court to get homeless people on their feet.

"I wish we had that here," Baxter said.

Assistant state court administrator Rick Schwermer said homeless court is appropriate in Salt Lake City because it has the highest concentration of homeless in the state, but the court has to prove itself a bit more before expanding.

"I applaud Judge Baxter's creativity and ingenuity," he said "Obviously we have an interest and we have been pushing and supporting efforts in court that solve problems."

Both Schwermer and Baxter agree what is needed is for those who offer services to the homeless to team up with homeless court to help turn lives around.

Meantime, Baxter said he will continue to do what he can to help the homeless. "They deserve to be treated with respect just like anyone else, and I think they really appreciate that."