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
"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
"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,"
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
"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."