Oklahoma City's program to expunge municipal fines and fees for people experiencing homelessness will take place in person for the first time since its start nearly two years ago.
Community Court launched virtually in fall 2020, after plans to launch in person in April that year were put on hold due to the pandemic. The program's goal is to connect unhoused people with the resources they need to prevent future municipal offenses and fines they can't pay.
Attorney Aimee Majoue represents the clients for free, and was part of the program's creation. Majoue said she's seen an "amazing" impact over the past 18 months.
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"I've seen people who have gone from complete rock bottom engage in services, succeed in this program, have all their cases dismissed and their charges forgiven," Majoue said.
Since October 2020, 58 individuals have been in the program, including 24 who are current participants. Fourteen have been removed from the program, while 20 have completed the program.
A total of $68,725.50 in fines and fees has been suspended, an average of $3,440 per participant.
Court is held quarterly, and the first in-person session will take place July 29 at the Homeless Alliance Day Shelter. Presiding over the court hearings is Judge Philippa James, and Majoue is currently the only attorney representing clients.
"I think that the defendant actually getting to be in front of the prosecutor and the judge … actually telling you you've been successful and that your tickets are going to be dismissed or the balance is suspended will be a little more impactful than it being just through paper," said the court's community relation coordinator Tracinda Langdale.
Lives turned around through Community Court process
Some clients who go through the program start out with dozens of municipal charges.
One client had 49 charges when Majoue tracked him down and asked if he wanted to participate.
"He said he was tired of being homeless and drunk and he knew … he needed to get the help," Majoue said.
Such a large number of city charges is usually an indicator that the client is street homeless, Majoue said. Often those charges are for trespassing, and sometimes larceny.
"When you actually dive into what it is they were stealing, most of the time it's things like baby formula, or toilet paper, or basic necessities," Majoue said. "They're not stealing radios or TVs or things like that. They're stealing basic things to take care of themselves and their family."
The client who started with 49 charges had all of his cases dismissed, Majoue said. At the time, he had been sober for a few months, was on a permanent housing list and was working with his case manager to stay in temporary housing.
Another client engaged in extensive counseling and gained back visitation with his daughter.
One young man got his record cleared, his driver's license reinstated and found a job thanks to help from service providers the court connected him with, she said.
The ins and outs of community court
The city takes a multi-faceted approach to getting clients in the program. For some, Majoue and program coordinators try to track down folks they know would qualify.
Other times, service providers refer clients, and sometimes clients attend a regular hearing where they are presented with the option to move their case to Community Court.
Clients are given continuations ranging from three to nine months. During that time, they work with service providers to address the root cause of their charges.
"For example, if we have someone that has a dozen trespassing charges, and they are definitely street homeless, a plea agreement might be a six-month continued sentence, and providing proof that over those six months they tried to get on a housing list," Majoue said.
Once the judge feels a client has taken enough steps toward improving their circumstances, the case is dismissed.
Program one of several reform steps for Municipal Court
While the Community Court program is currently for those experiencing homelessness, an expansion to those who are on the verge of becoming homeless has been discussed, Langdale said.
Any increase in clientele would require more attorney help, Majoue said.
Langdale, the court's coordinator, said the program is also one of several reform practices the city court has taken on.
Anyone struggling to pay their municipal court costs can attend one of the city's Rule 8 hearings, and the judge will perform a financial review. Fines could be reduced or suspended altogether, Langdale said.
And for people with municipal warrants, coming to the courthouse to set a new court date will not result in an arrest.
"There's still consequences to the court process," Langdale said. "But we're going to make sure you're as informed as possible and are welcomed. … A lot of people are not expecting it when they come in if they've not been in our courthouse before. And I think that that leaves an impact (on) their thoughts around what criminal justice can be."
This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: Program for OKC homeless population available to suspend city fines