Before he started living in his car, Emanuel Prichett said he had an impeccable driving record.
Earlier this year, though, Prichett walked into the District Court on Alakea Street to find he had 34 traffic tickets and three bench warrants.
“I couldn’t keep them all straight in my head,” said Prichett, 61. “I had so many tickets I lost track of all my court dates.”
He was four years into homelessness and had been to court so many times the bailiff recognized him. Prichett told the judge he wanted an attorney. At the Office of the Public Defender, he learned about Community Outreach Court, a program that would resolve his legal issues and lead him to services that put a roof over his head.
Today he lives in a clean and sober house and is looking for permanent housing and a job.
Nearing its first anniversary, the fledgling court program has helped Prichett and 34 other people dig themselves out of what he calls “that deep hole with all the tickets” in exchange for community service hours rather than jail time or fines.
The program is available to defendants with low-level, nonviolent offenses, including being in a park after hours, camping without a permit and driving without a license.
State Public Defender Jack Tonaki calls them “homeless-type citations.”
Many homeless people are trapped in a cycle of unpaid fines, court dates and stints in jail. It causes a backlog that Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Keith Kaneshiro said prevents the courts from dealing with more important cases.
“We don’t want to incarcerate these people,” Kaneshiro said. “Homelessness is a social issue, not a criminal one.”
When a $200,000 grant became available to launch the Community Outreach Court, the public defender’s office hired Jenalyn Camagong, a social worker who helps defendants resolve legal issues that often pose a barrier to housing and employment.
The court also collaborates with two social service agencies, the Institute for Human Services and The CHOW Project, which stands for the Community Health Outreach Work to Prevent AIDS Project. A social worker from one of the agencies waits outside the courtroom to meet with participants one-on-one and nudge them toward services that could get them off the streets.
This month, the program will expand from its single location in downtown Honolulu to District Court divisions around Oahu. The Legislature added $442,000 to the state budget for fiscal years 2018 and 2019 for the program. Eventually, lawmakers will decide if the program should expand to other islands.
Through November, eight court participants have found housing, and another eight entered shelters.
“After hearing these stories, it’s what keeps us going,” said Camagong.
Camagong reviews cases and creates a list of defendants with eligible charges who might benefit from Community Outreach Court.
Once they’re in the program, Camagong calls participants to remind them of court dates and community service requirements, or, as she puts it, “just to see how they are.”
Her work is part of an effort to create a friendlier environment in a setting that’s intimidating for most.
A colorful sign welcomes participants to the courtroom. Before the court session begins, a judge comes off the bench to offer defendants a pep talk.
Community Outreach Court isn’t equipped to help people with severe mental health issues — those who go before judges and don’t understand where they are or what’s going on. Unfortunately, traditional courts and jails have become a repository for that population, said Tonak.
Such cases are typically referred to a jail diversion program administered by the state Department of Public Safety and the Adult Mental Health Division of the Department of Health.
For others, Community Outreach Court can clear people’s records, easing the way for housing and employment.
Outstanding warrants are a barrier to getting a driver’s license, which is often necessary to get a job. They also can make it difficult or impossible to get government assistance, including food stamps or housing subsidies.
“Lots of times that’s the biggest obstacle preventing them from doing anything,” said Aasish Hemrajani, an outreach worker at The CHOW Project, a local nonprofit dedicated to helping people addicted to drugs.
One woman who was referred to the court lived in a park and had more than 100 citations.
“She just kind of gave up and allowed them to give her the citation,” said Camagong.
Prichett knows that sense of apathy and exhaustion.
“When you’re overwhelmed, you tend to give up,” he said. “You throw your hands up. What can you do? You don’t have the money to pay the fines. You don’t have the means to be organized to keep track of all these court dates.”
Police have issued more than 3,700 park closure citations in the downtown Honolulu area alone this year. The fine typically is $25 to $50, said Deputy Prosecutor Jeen Kwak Pang.
It’s standard police work to issue citations to offenders, even if their living situation makes it hard not to break the law.
A pilot program called Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion begins in Hawaii next year. Through the program, if a police officer sees someone who could benefit from social services and is violating a city sit-lie ban or committing a similar low-level, nonviolent offense, the officer can bring an on-call social worker to the scene.
The offender then has 30 days to undergo an assessment with the social worker. If that doesn’t happen, the officer can follow through with an arrest or citation.
A study of Seattle’s LEAD program from 2009 to 2014 showed that people who went through it were 58 percent less likely to reoffend than those in the regular criminal justice system.
For now, the growing number of “homeless-type citations” means a lot of people living on the streets have court dates or bench warrants hanging over their heads.
Prichett, who went to jail five times while he was homeless as a result of low-level citations, said the fear of serving time keeps many people from showing up in court.
Knowing they have a criminal record can also keep people from seeking help social services. Many are afraid that if they give social workers their name or even sign into a homeless shelter, they’ll go to jail.
“They’re hiding out,” said Hemrajani.
To complete his community service requirement, Pritchett spent 30 hours clearing flower beds and sweeping leaves at Kaumakapili Church in Kalihi and around the courthouse.
“That was easy compared to what the courts did for me,” he said. “You wouldn’t believe the burden it lifted off me after I went through this.”
Lousie Fernandez, who works as a security guard, was able to finish her 28 hours of community service on her days off.
She’s lived in her car for eight months and manages to keep it insured and the tags up to date. She said she ended up in Community Outreach Court after stealing food she couldn’t afford to buy.
The social workers Fernandez met through the court helped her fill out applications for housing vouchers, but Fernandez estimates it’ll take three years for that aid to actually reach her.
For now, she plans to continue living in her car and look for an affordable rental.
Vinnesha Bertola, an outreach program manager at IHS, works with people who go through Community Outreach Court.
She said the program brings in people who wouldn’t otherwise seek help.
“These are high-functioning people so we wouldn’t necessarily see them on the street,” Bertola said.