Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Livin’ on the Edge

We like to, perhaps we even need to, distance ourselves from others sometimes.  When we see someone in a situation in which we do not want to find ourselves, our initial reaction is to find out how they got there.  What did they do?  More importantly, what did they do that we would never do?  As long as they did something that is different from what we do, we’re safe.  Or so we think.  But it’s a fallacy and a dangerous one.  We are all closer than we think to things we don’t want to think about.

Every second Tuesday, Marin County has a special court proceeding called Community Court.  There are lawyers and there’s a judge, a court commissioner in her black robes with her clerk and her bailiff.  There’s an American flag standing next to the table where the judge presides.  There’s lawyers and clients, too.  But, it doesn’t take place in a court room; it takes place in the dining hall at St. Vincent dePaul’s.  The clients aren’t given a court date here by a police officer issuing a ticket.  They’re referred and must complete a process with Legal Aid of Marin before being allowed to use this special court.

This court is for people for whom a single citation can get them sucked into the system, trapped in a web of ever-growing fines they will never be able to pay.  A spiral that often leads to lost drivers’ licenses and then lost jobs because they can not get to work followed by lost housing because they have no job.  Eventually, it involves rotations in and out of jail as serving time is the only way to handle the tickets they cannot pay. 

“Life-style infractions,” they’re called, tickets for sleeping in the park, for having an open alcohol container on the street, for sleeping in your car, for sitting on the sidewalk, for being homeless and not being allowed to be anywhere.  The court also handles minor traffic violations for people who cannot afford the tickets.  Often, violations involving a vehicle that is also the person’s only shelter.

Community Court provides a way out, a way to stop the downward spiral before it begins.  Social workers talk to the clients about options for obtaining shelter and work, attorneys meet with clients and propose alternative sentences to the judge.  And the judge talks to the attorneys and the clients and the social workers and she makes agreements with the people, not fines, not punishments, agreements.  Agreements to help better their lives.  Community service, housing logs, job search logs, one step at a time, get the car insured then come back, etc., and always “no new tickets.” 

People come back month after month having completed their side of the agreements and the judge takes care of the tickets.  Another chance, the ability to move on, with housing, with a job.

Seeing them, reading this, it’s easy to think of the Community Court clients as “other,” but they’re more us, more you and more me, than we’d like to think.  Sure, there are people who come in who just like living in their cars.  There are high school drop outs with old drug addictions.  But there are also engineers, consultants who used to travel monthly to Asia, people with college degrees and masters degrees.  People who were getting by until a divorce, or a car accident or a loss in the family.  People who had a “normal” life on that edge we all forget we’re on.

Community Court’s a great program.  I hope we all have such opportunities when we need them.

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