HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The U.S. Department of Justice has awarded a $200,000 grant to the Honolulu Prosecutor's Office to deal with a skyrocketing number of court cases involving the homeless.
The number of laws aimed at curbing homelessness has increased, but so has the number of homeless people who have run afoul of those laws. As a result, there's a huge court backlog, clogged with petty misdemeanors and violations such as being in a park after closing hours, or breaking other park regulations.
"We cannot resolve most serious cases because we're stuck with all these other cases," said city prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro.
According to the prosecutor's office, there were 11,157 outstanding cases last year, including 7,163 for violating park rules, such as being in a park after hours. There were also 2,249 outstanding cases for drinking in public, 1,084 cases for smoking in public, and 313 involving the city's "sit-lie" law.
Forty percent of those cited didn't show up for court.
"They're not always able to get to the court," said state Sen. Jill Tokuda (D-Kaneohe, Kailua). You're not always able to find them. They have no permanent address."
The prosecutor's office, the State Judiciary and the public defender's office will use the grant to establish a Community Outreach Court.
"The reason why we have this problem is they don't come to the courts. So we'll take the court to them," said Kaneshiro.
Kaneshiro said the public defender's office will work with the homeless to reach a plea deal. When there are enough cases, the court would use a community or recreation center near a group of homeless, offering some compassion along with justice.
"We look at reality. They can't pay the fines. And what's the sense of incarcerating them? There's no sense in that," said Kaneshiro.
He said the court would likely sentence offenders to community service. It could also order offenders to seek help.
"They think it's only about homes and houses. It's more than that," said Kaneshiro. "It's about services for the people. Drug treatment, mental health, counseling the homeless, jobs."
State lawmakers are also considering Tokuda's bill to appropriate another $612,000 to support the court, which could begin as soon as this summer.