Homeless Courts

About Homeless Courts

The ABA Commission on Homelessness & Poverty has been instrumental in establishing homeless courts across the country. The Commission has developed multiple education resources, provided technical assistance, and approved policies related to homeless courts, including basic principles for homeless court programs. To counter the effect of criminal cases pushing homeless defendants further outside society, homeless courts across the country combine a progressive plea bargain system, alternative sentencing structure, assurance of “no custody,” and proof of program activities to address a full range of misdemeanor offenses. Alternative sentencing activities take the place of agency program participation for fines and custody; they include life-skills, chemical dependency or AA/NA meetings, computer or English literacy classes, training or search for employment, counseling and education. The court agreement of “no custody” acknowledges the participant’s efforts in their program activities to satisfy Court requirements.

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The Collaborative Process

Local homeless service agencies are the gateway for participants to voluntarily enter this Court. Prospective participants work with a shelter caseworker to design a plan to move towards self-sufficiency. The shelter representatives write advocacy letters for each client. The advocacy letter is symbolic of the relationship between the client and the agency and includes a description of the program, the client’s start date, accomplishments, programs completed and insight into the client’s efforts. Homeless Courts efficiently expand access to justice by integrating the shelter system into the "currency" partisipants present for sentencing. Advanced preparation and fewer hearings translate into reduced courtroom hours and court costs. Shelters and service agencies save precious resources when clients move toward self-sufficient lives with cleared criminal cases. Before the Homeless Court Program, a client might successfully complete the agency program only to be incarcerated on an outstanding criminal case and, afterward, return to homelessness. When cases are resolved through the program, the homeless service providers do not have to redouble their efforts. The shelters address the underlying problems homelessness represents. For participants, the Court hearing is an opportunity to separate the past from the present and future by presenting the accomplishments described in the advocacy letters, planning for the future, and reconciling their cases. For the community, the Homeless Court engages people in a gainful process, removing homeless people from doorways, parks, and gathering places, where they are susceptible to arrest and being unwanted. These people can then rebuild their lives by addressing the legal issues that often create barriers to accessing housing, employment, public assistance, and treatment programs.

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Homeless Court Directory

Homeless Courts are presently operating in the jurisdictions at the link. Many other jurisdictions are examining the possibility of creating similar programs, and the Commission is pleased to offer technical support. For more information, please contact Kelly Russo at the ABA Washington Office at 202/662-1699 or via e-mail at homeless@americanbar.org.

Homeless Court Resources

View a selection of resources about homeless courts.

Homeless Courts in the News

Read news articles and publications about the homeless court model.