Henry Ford once said, “Coming together is a beginning, keeping together is progress, and working together is success.”
The beginning of the Docket for Homeless Persons (DHP) started when Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake brought a 10-year plan to her advisory board with the intention to end homelessness in Maryland. Progress came when the idea of a homeless docket was brought to the attention of a few members on the advisory board. The parts working together are the Homeless Person Representation Project (HPRP), MD Court of Appeals Judge Albert J. Matricciani, Jr., the Baltimore State’s Attorney, the Baltimore District Court, the Office of the Public Defender, and United Way of Central Maryland.
Although it took roughly a year and a half to get the docket in rotation, the dedication of all parties involved speaks to its success. But why a homeless docket?
“The docket’s purpose was to break a cycle that many had noticed,” says Matricciani.
“We noticed the homeless were becoming repeat offender for charges like public urination, panhandling, and loitering; however these things happen when you have nowhere to live,” adds Antonia K. Fasanelli, HPRP Executive Director. “Therefore, having the service providers on board helps us get to the basis of the problem.”
DHP’s main purpose is to help the homeless get closer to getting back on their feet. The process is started once a homeless person agrees to work with the service provider – that is, Health Care for the Homeless, Goodwill, Catholic Charities of Baltimore, Beans and Bread, according to Fasanelli. Then before the hearing, a public defender meets with the service provider to check in on the progress of the participant, and this gets reported to the judge. Once the person completes the requirements, the state’s attorney enters nol prossed.The case is now closed and the state will not prosecute. The defendant can then file for an expungement to have such records removed and focus on getting him- or herself back on track without the worry of warrants and other charges on their records. This docket, to Fasanelli, gives the homeless a fighting chance and a belief in the system instead of fearing it.
On the second and fourth Wednesday of every month, anyone who is homeless, in the broadest definition, can go to Early Resolutions Court at the Eastside District Courthouse in Baltimore and choose to have his or her case heard by DHP. And for those individuals, the public defender will inform them about the docket and let them know the next available court date.
Because this alternative docket is not mandatory, the homeless choose whether or not they want to participate. If an individual does, that person will then meet with a public defender and can also meet with a service provider, who will be on site.
The docket, which started in June 2013, has proven itself invaluable by the increasing volume of those willing to participate and complete the program: “Generally speaking, participants are coming back, reporting that they’re engaged in services, and ultimately having their criminal issues resolved so they can move forward with their lives,” says Angie McAllister, Associate Vice President of Special Initiatives at United Way. McAllister notes the first few dockets had only a handful of attendants, but now the dockets average closer to a dozen.
Although the format for DHP had been a success in about 25 other jurisdictions, both Matricciani and McAllister agree that “it took a bit of time to determine what the model would look like here” in Baltimore.
The homeless docket originated in San Diego, by Steve Binder who was able to take the San Diego Superior Court to the streets by having these cases heard in the community rooms at the local homeless service agencies. For Baltimore, going to the higher court did not seem necessary, according to Matricciani. “This docket would serve better within the District Court,” he says.
Fasanelli also notes how instrumental the service providers are in creating a trusting relationship for those who choose to be participants in DHP. “To build trust is to do good work and fulfill commitments from the service providers,” she says.
As word of the homeless docket is spreading and as the number of participants increase, Fasanelli and others involved take note of things they can do better in order to make the process smoother for those involved. According to Matricciani, “There are always going to be a few bumps in the road, but that is why we meet up and discuss ways to make it better.”
For Fasanelli, even little successes are to be celebrated. “When I see one of the participants thank us after their hearing, it lets me know we are doing the right thing,” she says.
Although the docket is currently only in Baltimore City, it’s becoming a model that Fasanelli, McAllitster, and Matricciani would like to see implemented in other counties in Maryland. Another future goal for those involved is to see the docket run without being so hands on, but they understand that this is a process, and it takes time. As they move forward and iron out small issues that they come across, they know this docket is definitely serving its purpose.