At the Kelly Shelter in Medford, municipal court staff took printers and laptops off a small cart to set them up in a barebones room. A woman wearing a mustard sweater and a white puffer jacket set up in the corner with her laptop and a legal pad. You might recognize her more easily if she was wearing a black robe.
Virginia Greer is a municipal judge in Medford. And this homeless shelter was her courtroom for the day. It’s part of a new program Greer started called community outreach court.
“When you talk to people, you often get the reaction of, ‘Court is scary,’” Greer said. “And there is a large segment of the population that the courts don’t reach because of that.”
Just outside, Jeremy McElmurry waited for court to begin. He’d hoped the program would improve his situation.
“My tickets have just built up over time and it’s discouraging and intimidating to have all that stuff packed onto your back,” he said, describing getting trapped in a cycle of fines and criminal charges.
The goal of community outreach court, according to Greer, is to break that cycle by finding alternative sentences that help someone get into a better position. For example, someone charged with trespassing for sleeping outside a business.
“Instead of issuing a fine, which they wouldn’t be able to afford, necessarily, or sentencing them jail time, which isn’t going to assist them or the community in getting them out of the criminal justice system, we would sanction them to go find housing, maintain stable housing for 30 days,” said Greer.
Judge Greer said to help people accomplish their goals, the court will help connect them with service providers.
Greer tried this program out twice last year at two resource fairs the City of Medford hosted. They helped 76 people collectively clear over 500 cases at those events.
One of the goals of community court is also to help reduce the strain on Oregon’s public defender shortage.
“I would put it out there too, there’s a prosecution crisis,” Greer said. “I mean, right along with the public defender crisis, there’s a lack of prosecutors.”
While the Medford program is still new, there are many other community court programs across the country, including one that’s had success almost 2,500 miles across the Pacific Ocean in the Aloha state.
Helping the homeless in Hawaii
“It’s not about punishment, it’s about recognition and acknowledging the work that they’re doing, the community service that they’re performing to help the community out,” said Oahu District Court Judge Thomas Haia.
The program in Hawaii started in 2017 with a federal grant to help its homeless population clear low-level offenses and connect them with social services.
Oahu’s program is slightly different from Medford’s, but both share similar goals. Haia said their program is very involved. Both defense attorneys and prosecutors work together to clear the cases and get the participants the help they need.
“So a lot of these people will get their community service work done and they will get hooked up with services almost immediately, and then they can graduate as early as 60 days from the date of their admission,” said Haia.
Since 2017, 615 people have graduated from the program in Oahu and the court has cleared over ten thousand cases. Participants do community service while working with a social worker to find a job, stable housing and get treatment if needed.
“It’s not about punishment, it’s about recognition and acknowledging the work that they’re doing” — Oahu District Court Judge Thomas Haia
The Medford program is not unique in Oregon. Eugene launched a community court in 2016. The program only covers nonviolent misdemeanors and only for those arrested or cited in the downtown core area.
The city ordered a study in 2019 comparing community court participants with those who chose to go through the regular court process. The results showed around half as many community court participants were arrested, convicted or incarcerated within one year of completing the program.
However, the Eugene court does not address traffic tickets, which can be a major barrier on the road to improving someone’s life.
“It’s really hard to live out there without a car or transportation to keep a job,” said Rickey Singley, who also came to community court in Medford.
Singley, who was previously homeless and living out of his car, said he’s had his license taken away because he couldn’t afford to pay a traffic ticket. By getting these tickets cleared, he can more easily get to and from work.
Judge Haia in Oahu said they’ve had discussions before about whether their program is just for clearing traffic tickets.
“One of the huge issues is, most places you have to have a driver’s license in order to get a good job,” he said. “So I don’t see it as, ‘We’re addressing traffic cases for the sake of addressing traffic cases.’ It’s that we’re really helping these people get on their feet again.”
Keep doing what you’re doing
Back at the city’s first community outreach court this year, at least 10 people showed up in the first hour to Medford’s Kelly Shelter. Many had heard about the program through word of mouth, that it could be a way for them to get their court cases cleared up without paying hefty fines.
“Whatever comes our way, we’ll figure out and adapt to, and keep going until we figure out a better way of managing these cases” —Municipal Judge Virginia Greer
Jeremy McElmurry met with a court program specialist who was able to deliver some great news about his municipal court cases and their fines.
“They told me as long as I keep doing what I’m doing in life right now, since I’m making a lot of right choices — I’m working, I’m involved in aftercare treatment — as long as I give them an update each month and make good choices they’ll reduce it [the fines] each month until they’re gone,” he said.
Judge Greer is hoping to do this once a month. She’d like to rotate between different places throughout Medford to reach a wide range of people who need help.
Greer wants to create a space that feels safe and welcoming for everyone. A judge can’t be very scary when they’re sitting in a parking lot on a camp chair, she says. The hope of this program is to offer not just legal resolution, but a chance for people to break the cycle of fines and criminal charges, setting them on a path towards a better life.
“Whatever comes our way, we’ll figure out and adapt to, and keep going until we figure out a better way of managing these cases, just to take the burden off the system and to help people out.”