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Poverty Courts

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Erroneously named “community courts,” the poverty court being proposed by Mayor Newsom for the Tenderloin aims to limit the due process rights of homeless people. This court would focus on status crimes, i.e. those crimes that are unavoidable for people who are poor and living on the streets. Poverty courts represent a further step towards the permanent criminalization of poor and homeless people, disguised as a more compassionate approach to “quality of life” issues. However, since no amount of punishment will ever succeed in lifting people out of poverty, this court will only deepen the cycle of incarceration and homelessness.

  1. The Overall Concept in San Francisco
    • While the City has no plan for the court, and is facing mounting opposition, the information we have gathered indicates they would red-line a portion of the poorest neighborhood in San Francisco (the Tenderloin), and any sleeping, sitting, vending, camping, grafitti, and prostitution tickets received in this area would be sent to a special court. The police would march the individual immediately to an overnight stay in jail, and/or over to court, and punishment would be swiftly doled out. In the Mid-Manhattan model, which Newsom administration has decided to re-create, punishment for sleeping is cleaning the sidewalk in front of the world’s largest corporate headquarters.
  2. Poverty Courts Further Criminalize Poverty
    • While alternative sentencing might be a positive solution for minor misdemeanors, they actually increase the punishment for low-level crimes that are currently defined as mere infractions.
    • This proposed court would target so-called “quality-of-life” crimes, such as sleeping in public spaces. The court would criminalize basic life-sustaining activities that are unavoidable and are disproportionately and selectively enforced against poor and homeless people.
    • This poverty court would further embed local homelessness policy in the criminal justice system. The police, arbitrators, and community service punishments cannot solve homelessness: This can only perpetuate the cycle of homelessness.
    • The perception that services are attached at the end of the criminal justice system may serve as encouragement to law enforcement agents to issue even more citations, even when a person is not in violation of the law.
  3. Attaching Social Services to the Criminal System is Poor Policy
    • Despite the housing initiatives of the current local administration, we still lack sufficient housing, jobs, or healthcare to provide an exit from homelessness.
    • Placing people who have been sentenced by the court into treatment may not be feasible: There are currently hundreds of people on the wait lists for residential treatment, as well as methadone maintenence among individuals voluntarily seeking treatment. Mandatory services through the court system place those who are sentenced by the court ahead of those who may have been on waiting lists for months or years at a time.
    • Prioritizing those in the criminal justice system creates a strange triage process, where people are prioritized based on having interacted with the police as opposed to having a dire need of the service.
    • The type and duration of services typically offered, such as counseling, AA meetings and ESL classes are not effective. Stabalization beds, shelter beds and other brief services do not address the root cause of homelessness.
    • This administration’s track record with Prop M (aggressive panhandling) was quite poor. The Mayor promised voters that panhandlers would get “treatment;” they did not. Apparently, there is no treatment for panhandling. Like Proposition M, there is no funding for services attached to this initiative.
    • Creating new services specifically for this poverty court would be ill-advised and would produce backward public policy whereby police officers would act as triage nurses deciding who got access to scarce services.
  4. Due Process
    • If this poverty court is modeled after the Mid-Manhattan court and similar ones around the coutry, it would deprive homeless and poor individuals of their due process of law and raise concerns over involuntary servitude.
    • People of very low incomes do not receive adequate representation within the courts. This poverty court would exacerbate this problem by affording poor people less, not more, access to due process rights. Victimized, abused, and discriminated against by society at large, the homeless community needs more, not fewer, procedural safeguards when accused and subjected to criminal sanctions. The due process concerns are specific, numerous, and compounded when considering the rights of the poor and homeless individuals:

      THE FOURTEENTH AMENDMENT OF THE US CONSITUTION. Fundamental and unique to the US criminal justice system is the guarantee of basic due process rights. Essential to this is the hallmark that a criminal defendant is innocent until proven guilty. The majority of working models demand the guilt of the individual before them.

      THE FIFTH AMENDMENT OF THE US CONSITUTION. The poverty court’s assumption or demand of a guilty disposition violates the Fifth Amendment of the US Constitution’s guarantee of freedom from self-incrimination. In light of dramatic under-representation of the homeless community, any supposed voluntary participation in the system and requisite self-incriminating statements should be heavily scrutinized.

      THE SIXTH AMENDMENT OF THE US CONSTITUTION. The models available now stand in violation of the Sixth Amendment right to counsel and trial by jury. No poverty court model offers the most basic of guarantees, the right to appointed counsel. As applied to homeless individuals, the poverty court proposal threatens to take us back a time before Mississippi v. Brown, when vicious discrimination in the criminal justice system routinely deprived African Americans the right to have a lawyer in their defense.

      NO REMEDY FOR CONSTITUTIONAL VIOLATIONS. Traditional courts exclude evidence obtained in violation of the US Constitution. The poverty courts offer no remedy and nothing to deter illegal searches of homeless persons. The entire proposal completely ignores the overwhelming problem of government misconduct and intrusion into the privacy of homeless individuals, and the obvious tragedy of malicious prosecution of homeless community.

      NO FORMAL RULES OF EVIDENCE. Traditional courts use formal rules to prohibit unreliable, irrelevant, and prejudicial evidence. Poverty Courts do not restrict the use of this evidence. Subject to grave public animus and frequent police misconduct, the homeless community must be protected from unfair prejudice.

      THE EIGHTH AMENDMENT OF THE US CONSTITUTION. The entire process of inundating the homeless community with quality of life infractions for conduct that they must engage in because of their homelessness violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, as determined by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. It is cruel and unusual punishment to penalize persons for acts in which they must engage.

    • Community service sentences for homeless persons denied due process raise concerns over involuntary servitude and threaten organized labor. The Coalition on Homelessness welcomes service as an alternative to incarceration. However, regularly sentencing a homeless person through a system in which they are routinely denied due process, subjected to unfounded accusations, and penalized for their housing status is inhumane. Community service sentencing that displaces once paid and unionized workers is a threat to the rights of labor.
  5. Poor Use of Public Funds

    This court has a premliminary price tag of $1.3 million, that most likey is for acquisition of a building alone and does not include innumerable court, attorney, clerical, or other service costs. We believe that cities and counties should cease funding the criminalization of poor and homeless individuals, and instead use public funds to address the root causes of poverty and homelessness. Root causes include the lack of affordable housing and the limited scale of housing assistance programs, as well as people’s inability to pay for housing, food, childcare, healthcare, and education.

  6. Summary

    Millions of homeless people across the country live in peril of detention, abuse, or incarceration by law enforcement officers for no reason other than that they have no home. Poverty courts further embed local homeless policy in the criminal justice system and hold no promise of adequate housing or services required to exit homelessness. The criminalization of poor and homeless individuals does not address root causes of poverty and homelessness.

    The call for a community court in the Tenderloin to expedite criminal prosecution of homeless people is simply another election year ploy. The Mayor of San Francisco has high hopes hung upon the poverty court proposal as a solution to the problems of inner city neighborhoods; these hopes are unrealistic. The proposed poverty court would simply waste public funds, and pose a greater threat to the rights of the homeless community—a group that already faces extreme discrimination in society and in the criminal justice system. This poverty court would further criminalize the homeless community, violate the due process rights to our homeless population, and would systematize involuntary servitude. Accordingly, the Coalition on Homelessness registers our opposition to the proposed “community court.”


Author: Street Sheet Editor

The STREET SHEET is the oldest continuously published street news paper in the United States. Organizationally, it is the public education and outreach tool of the Coalition on Homelessness. Every month, the STREET SHEET reaches 32,000 readers through over 200 homeless or low-income vendors. Our vendors are charged nothing for the papers they receive, and keep all money they earn through STREET SHEET distribution.

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