A successful Hennepin County treatment court is being dissolved to make way for a similar program in the hopes that more people facing low-level crimes can be part of it.
Since 2013, the county has operated the HOMES court, which worked to provide housing for homeless people charged with crimes like loitering or public urination. The idea was that by finding housing, the crimes would stop.
County data showed that the average number of arrests, days in jail and days in detox for the homeless people who went through the court in one year was cut in half, saving taxpayers more than $300,000.
But that court was only available to those facing a housing crisis.
In February, HOMES court (which stands for Housing Outreach for Minneapolitans Establishing Stability) will end as Hennepin County launches “restorative court.”
Defendants charged with minor offenses can use that court to clear the cases off their records so long as they follow recommendations made by a judge, social workers and court attorneys.
“We’re taking what HOMES court has done and expanding it,” said Minneapolis Deputy City Attorney Mary Ellen Heng. “We want to get at the issues that are driving these behaviors.”
Defense attorneys can refer their clients to the restorative court, who will meet with a social worker if eligible to address underlying problems, such as alcoholism or drug abuse.
If the defendant cooperates and can show improvement such as completing treatment, then the charges can be dropped, according to Hennepin County.
Restorative court will operate like the HOMES court, with a few exceptions.
One of those will include fewer scheduled court dates for the defendant, going from monthly to several months in between hearings.
Defendants going through restorative court would be expected to meet regularly with social workers, while reducing bench warrants for missing court dates.
That should also free court time for a judge and the attorneys, said Hennepin County Chief Judge Ivy Bernhardson.
But fewer appearances could also lessen the accountability that defendants face in having to go to court each month, she acknowledged.
“We’re trying to find the right balance,” she said, adding that the Minneapolis City Attorney’s Office will be monitoring defendants in restorative court.
Having fewer mandated court hearings is one of the concerns about the new court for John Tribbett, the street outreach program manager for St. Stephens, a Minneapolis nonprofit that works with homeless people.
“The regular court dates are something that people have said are important to them in making changes,” Tribbett said. “The accountability of HOMES and the focused attention was the deciding factor in the homeless getting sober and getting housed.”
St. Stephens started a court for homeless people more than a decade ago to help them when they were picked up on outstanding warrants for petty misdemeanors and thrown into jail.
The nonprofit partnered with Hennepin County on the HOMES court.
But in coming up with restorative court, Tribbett said, St. Stephens was never consulted.
He said he worries that by not focusing exclusively on finding housing for homeless people, the restorative court won’t be as successful.
“I fear that this is a move backwards,” he said. “HOMES court was based on the understanding that homelessness was the primary driver of criminal activity.”
Jeanette Boerner, an assistant public defender who helped develop restorative court, said in many ways it will operate almost identically to HOMES court.
“I hope we’ll see the continued success that HOMES court has had and we’ll continue to build on that success,” she said.