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Community Court Lacks Big Stick

By Olin Ericksen
Staff Writer

January 31 -- Santa Monica's much-anticipated homeless community court is set to launch Friday, and while it’s heavy on carrots, don't expect the stick used in other cities if the homeless convicted of petty crimes refuse help.

When the first homeless defendants go before presiding Judge Bobbie Tillman Friday for charges ranging from public drunkenness to sleeping in doorways, Santa Monica's $500,000 pilot program will be missing a punishment used nationwide: jail time.

"It might be more effective with jail time, but we can't use the space at the local jail," said former county supervisor and Santa Monica's homeless czar, Ed Edelman.

Edelman -- who has made the court the centerpiece of the $200,000 post created by the City Council to wrangle more regional support -- had envisioned using both incentives and punishment, following the model used in mid-town Manhattan's court for the homeless.

But Santa Monica's limited resources and a lack of coordination among correctional jurisdictions faded any hope early on to implement the "stick" part of the model, according to Edelman and other City officials.

Currently, there are 112 spaces at the new Santa Monica jail, which serves an average of 12 to15 prisoners a day. However, it is considered a type I facility and is only equipped physically, and allowed legally, to house prisoners for 96 hours.

Using the County jails could be an option down the road, but for now, it appears all Santa Monica has to offer are carrots in the form of extended services, or small sticks, such as community service, Edelman said.

"It's going to start off with a small caseload and we will work from there," said Edelman, who described the court as "a work in progress."

The program -- which should alleviate the heavy caseloads in criminal court -- would work better if prison time was attached, experts told the City Council last week.

Martha Burt – a consultant for the Urban Institute, which was hired by the City to evaluate the local homeless service system -- told the council that "coercion works" in programs that use prison as a deterrent.

City Attorney Marsha Moutrie concurred, saying this week that the "program would work better with jail time.”

Yet despite the lack of jail cells, Moutrie, Edelman and others said the City should move forward with the program, which may prove effective for those who truly want help.

"It's only in the short-term that the stick is going to work," Moutrie said. "The (homeless) who are going to be successful will be the ones reaching for the carrot."

Other City officials emphasized that services – such as psychiatric and substance abuse counseling – will be, and have always been, the preeminent focus of the community court model.

"It's a pilot, and we don't have all the tools that other jurisdictions have," said Kate Vernez, assistant to the City Manager for Governmental Relations, who has worked extensively on the court.

"What we hope to offer for the chronically homeless in Santa Monica is the chance at change through services here," she said. "The most important thing, though, is that this is one additional tool."

Other regional cities are looking at Santa Monica’s court -- which is funded by the County -- as a model, City officials said.

"One of the reasons Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky funded it through the County was not only because Santa Monica is ahead of the curve here, but because it could be used as a pilot elsewhere in the region… if it is a success," Edelman said.

To measure that success, there must be a "cost-benefit" analysis, said Edelman, who was responsible for helping create the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, the County's only agency dealing with the issue of homelessness.

"I think success would be dependent upon if the people brought to the court get treatment and get out of homelessness," he said.

But that must be weighed against how much time, energy and money is spent to achieve those results, he said.

"The County and City are putting a considerable amount of resources into this," Edelman said.

Further, the program will only work if other communities get involved in helping to lower the number of homeless who come to Santa Monica and use its highly specialized services, City officials caution.

"If more services were dispersed elsewhere, there would be less demand on Santa Monica," Edelman said. "Every city and jurisdiction has to be reasonable to do its fair share, such as expanding services or paying to help other areas out.

"Hopefully other cities and jurisdictions will act voluntarily, but if we need to, then perhaps the thing is to bring about legislation."

Despite the challenges of starting the program and the hurdles it must surmount to make it a success, Edelman and others who spent months bringing the court to fruition said they are eagerly awaiting its launch.

"I'm very pleased we've finally arrived, and it's been a long time coming," he said. "It's a lot of collaborative effort, and I would have liked it to come sooner, but there has been a lot of people involved to bring it about.

"We'll begin to see what works and what doesn't, but the big thing is it's off and running."




"The (homeless) who are going to be successful will be the ones reaching for the carrot." Marsha Moutrie


"The big thing is it's off and running." Ed Edelman


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