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New District Court docket provides help for the homeless

When a homeless person is charged with a minor crime, there is usually nowhere to send the court-date notice.

Court of Special Appeals Judge Albert J. Matricciani Jr. and Homeless Persons Representation Project Antonia K. Fasanelli were among the people who collaborated with the Maryland District Court in Baltimore to create a docket for homeless people suspected of nonviolent misdemeanors.

Without notice of the date, a charge of failure to appear is all but guaranteed — and the allegations can block him or her from securing housing and a job.

Hoping to break that cycle, the Maryland District Court in Baltimore has initiated a docket specifically for homeless people who are accused of nonviolent misdemeanors. They work with a service provider to find alternative solutions and treatment while their hearing is suspended up to 90 days.

“We really want to eliminate barriers to housing and employment and give people a fighting chance,” said Antonia K. Fasanelli, executive director of the Homeless Persons Representation Project Inc. in Baltimore.

The docket is part of the district court’s Early Resolution Court, which also has specialized dockets for prostitution and drug addiction. The first homeless docket was held at the end of June and will take place Wednesday afternoons twice a month.

“What we hope is that the majority of clients will end up in permanent, supported housing and never again will be involved in the court system,” said Fasanelli, who also chairs the American Bar Association’s Commission on Homelessness & Poverty.

The docket is the result of collaboration between HPRP, Court of Special Appeals Judge Albert J. Matricciani Jr., the Office of the Public Defender, the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office, United Way of Central Maryland and the district court.

“We are trying to address very basic needs and deal with a population who is no real danger or threat,” Matricciani said.

Homeless people in the program either have an open warrant against them or have been recently charged with a misdemeanor.

“I suspect that many homeless people are very, very fearful of going to court,” said Mark Furst, president and CEO of United Way of Central Maryland. “They have these charges, then they fail to appear.”

The alternative docket is just that: voluntary, not mandatory, for homeless suspects. Those who choose to participate meet with a public defender and a service provider who can help them with their needs, whether it’s housing per se or something that contributes to homelessness, like drug or alcohol addiction. The service providers include groups like Health Care for the Homeless, Goodwill, Beans & Bread and Catholic Charities of Baltimore, Fasanelli said.

Together, the group constructs an alternative plan for the homeless person to make amends for the alleged offense, such as attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, job training or completing community service at a housing nonprofit, which also can provide a place to live.

“The program would be sort of like an individual treatment plan to address the basic problems a person has, so once the charges are gone, they can take care of basic responsibilities,” Matricciani said.

After the group decides on a plan, it is presented to a judge, who suspends the hearing up to 90 days while the offender completes the steps in the personalized plan.

“It doesn’t serve anybody in the system for them to have outstanding warrants or to be sent to Central Booking,” Fasanelli said.

A week before the hearing date, the public defender meets with the service provider to discuss the client’s progress, which is then reported to the judge. If a person completes the requirements, the charges against them are not processed.

“It’s really easy to send somebody to jail,” said Judge John R. Hargrove Jr., administrative judge of the district court in Baltimore. “It takes no thought. It doesn’t require any effort.”

So far, five people were on each of the two dockets. The plan is to grow that number to 20 to 30 people in one afternoon docket, Matricciani said.

“As they start to have faith in this system, we think they will come forward,” Fasanelli said.

Of the five, most had committed offenses like public urination or drinking on the street, said Hargrove, who presided over the first docket.

“There’s a beauty in this when it helps somebody,” Hargrove said. “When it doesn’t, you read about how it was a waste of time. But if you are getting somebody, several somebodys, I think it’s worth it.”

The first case on the docket was a man who had been living on the streets for decades, Fasanelli said. He had been at the top of the list for permanent housing for years, but was blocked because of an open warrant against him.

Beans & Bread, which provides meals and housing placement to the homeless in Baltimore, called HPRP when it heard about the docket and, as a result, the warrant was immediately removed and the man was able to secure a place to live.

The idea for the docket started with discussions among members of the advisory board for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s 10-year plan to end homelessness. Matricciani, who is on the board, researched options for a homeless docket and reached out to other groups.

Similar dockets exist in 25 jurisdictions across the country, the first of which was started in San Diego in 1989, according to the American Bar Association’s Commission on Homelessness & Poverty.

“This is a group that has very specific needs,” said Deputy Assistant State’s Attorney Elizabeth Embry. “It’s very nice to have a program that addresses them specifically.”

Creating a docket was faster and involved less paperwork than creating a specialized court, Matricciani and others said.

“We decided that it really wasn’t necessary to make a new wheel here,” he said. “The wheel existed within the Early Resolution Court.”

The founders continued to meet throughout last year, and HPRP drafted a protocol for the docket.

“It’s no easy thing,” United Way’s Furst said. “I’m not a lawyer, certainly, but it’s complicated. You have to work within the legal system. There’s a lot of coordination.”

At the end of the first docket, Fasanelli said, a client asked her who was in charge of creating the program in order to thank them.

“The mere existence of the docket,” she said, “is based on the fact that the homeless are best served by service providers, who can address the underlying reasons for their homelessness.”