Hawaii lawmakers advanced a bill Tuesday that would establish a “mobile court” aimed at quickly adjudicating some misdemeanor cases in which defendants, many of them homeless, often fail to show up to the court.

Dubbed the “community court outreach project,” the mobile court would be convened at community health centers, schools and other public locations in Honolulu to help prevent minor, nonviolent cases from clogging up the court calendar.

Senate Bill 2569 is in response to an increase in cases involving the type of offenses that often trip up homeless people, such as public intoxication, trespassing, and violation of the city’s ban on sitting and lying on sidewalks.

Jack Tonaki, the state public defender, says there has been "tremendous increase" in cases involving homeless defendants in recent years.
Jack Tonaki, the state public defender, says there has been “tremendous increase” in cases involving homeless defendants in recent years. Diane S.W. Lee/Civil Beat

Under the bill, defendants who agree to a plea agreement reached between prosecutors and public defenders would be offered alternative sentences, such as community service or enrollment in court-ordered treatment programs for substance abuse and mental health issues.

Jack Tonaki, the state public defender, said the bill would help break the “vicious cycle,” in which homeless people are “cited because they have no place to call home, they are not able to attend court hearings and a bench warrant is issued due to their nonappearance in court.”

“The idea is to take the court into the community via a mobile court to assist needy community members in resolving their legal problems,” Tonaki said in his written testimony in support of the bill. “We are hoping that this outreach effort, in addition to other homeless initiatives … will result in a major alleviation of this very complex issue, which currently plagues our state.”

Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Keith Kaneshiro, known for his tough-on-crime stances, told members of the Senate Judiciary and Ways and Means committees that he also supported the bill.

“Homelessness has an impact on our criminal justice system with many nonviolent and less serious cases involving homeless persons clogging the courts and preventing more urgent cases from being heard,” Kaneshiro said. “This bill brings the courts, prosecutors and public defenders together in a collaborative effort to decrease the backlog of these cases. This is an innovative approach to dealing with an aspect of homelessness while also maintaining respect for the criminal justice system.”

The bill, which was passed unanimously, directs the judiciary to establish the mobile court for four years starting on July 1 and provides about $612,000 for the 2017 fiscal year.

Having been approved by the Judiciary and Ways and Means committees, the bill now goes to the full Senate.

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