Low-level offenders still skip court dates as enforcement tightens

by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Community court (here with judge Randall Weisberg presiding), is held at Bud Clark Commons in Old Town as a way to bring the court to its homeless defendants. A plan by the city to get more people into court faster has stumbled, with fewer defendants showing up on time.One of Portland’s most vexing downtown problems — repeated low-level violations by homeless men and women — remains mostly unchanged despite new policies intended to encourage violators to get help or suffer consequences, according to new data from the Multnomah County district attorney’s office.

City officials have struggled for years to find a way to discourage activities such as public urination, drinking in public spaces and illegal camping in the downtown area. Two years ago, in a move authorities around the country labeled as a potential breakthrough experiment, Multnomah County became the first in the nation to hold a community court at a homeless facility in Old Town.

The hope was that defendants might be more willing to show up for court dates if court were held in a facility where many of them spend their daytime hours — Bud Clark Commons in Old Town, where homeless men and women use day services. Even after that move, however, only about one in three cited by police appeared as instructed at community court.

This year, the Multnomah County district attorney and Portland police tried a new policy based on programs that had succeeded in yielding better community court attendance in other cities. Typically in Portland a police citation would require a homeless offender to attend community court on a day four to five weeks in the future. Other cities have found that reducing the time between the citation and the court appearance, in some cases to a day or two, could mean more people show up for court.

Since February, Portland police, prosecutors and court administrators have worked so that homeless violators now receive community court dates no more than two weeks in advance.

A second policy that has worked in other cities has been more difficult to institute in Portland: mandating a consequence for violators who do not show up for their community court dates. Jail space is considered too valuable and expensive, and too politically unpopular, to use for people whose initial citation was for a low-level offense such as public urination.

After one false start last summer, since May Portland police have used “interfering with a police officer” (IPO) ordinances to deal with chronic homeless nuisance offenders. In effect, an officer who finds someone repeatedly urinating or drinking in public, or building an illegal shelter, has the authority to first warn and then cite the offender as an IPO violator for failing to heed the initial warning.

The officer then arrests the offender and delivers him or her to the county justice center, where he or she typically spends a few hours before being released with a summons to appear in court, usually the next day. In some cases, IPO offenders have their possessions taken away and their pets taken to the Oregon Humane Society, increasing the hassle factor. If IPO violators fail to make their court date, a warrant for failure to appear is issued, which could lead to an arrest.

Getting their attention

But neither policy appears to be working, at least not as originally intended. According to Chief Deputy District Attorney Chuck Sparks, attendance at community court has, remarkably, dropped since the new policies were put in place. Since the quicker turnaround program was instituted in February, 78 percent of the people cited to Bud Clark Community Court for public drinking failed to appear in court. Only 72 percent failed to appear last year, when defendants had four or five weeks before their court dates.

“It doesn’t seem to be having the desired effect,” Sparks says of the quicker court dates.

As for the IPO program, Sparks isn’t ready to pass judgment yet.

“The purpose was to get people either engaged in services or at least have some meaningful accountability for these services,” he says. “Previously there wasn’t.”

Defendants who show up at Bud Clark Commons are given a choice. They can engage in social services intended to help them get off the street and address problems ranging from addiction to outstanding warrants. They can opt to perform community service to clear their record. Or they can choose to fight their citation in a court at a later date.

But those who did not show up at community court historically were issued a default judgment fine by the presiding judge which carried virtually no consequence. All of which was well known on the street, according to Sparks.

“It doesn’t take long for folks to figure that out and you have that behavior encouraged, and Portland becomes a place where that behavior is known to be accepted,” Sparks says.

Maybe, Sparks says, the IPO policy needs more time for the word to spread and its impact to be felt.

“Sometimes it’s just doing it enough to get people’s attention so people understand that the days of citation and just being able to ignore the problem, tearing up the citation, that those days are gone,” he says.

Sparks says the IPO policy offers police an extra tool they can use, but doesn’t represent an answer. “My sense is that having more officers out on the streets is really the solution,” he says.

Beneficial tool

Portland police Central Precinct Cmdr. Bob Day says the new IPO rules are helping, even if they aren’t getting violators to show up at community court. He says there has been a marked reduction in illegal campsites set up in the inner east side and downtown, and that littering, public urination and public drinking also have been less evident than in previous summers.

Day says police have issued only 10 IPOs this year, and that’s enough for the word to start getting around.

“The IPO tool for us has been beneficial,” he says.

Day can’t prove that the use of IPOs is responsible for the reduced violations, but he says he’s pretty sure there’s some cause and effect involved.

“The reason I believe that is because this tool is one of the first times we’ve been able to actually enforce with authority, to move people if they refuse to do so ... they know the consequences are more severe if they remain in place and continue with the behavior,” Day says.

Day also has last summer’s initial experiment with IPOs on which to base his opinion. Last summer, police issued dozens of IPO citations and took street offenders to jail using the IPO policy then being tested in a pilot project. Six of those offenders failed to appear the next day in court and warrants were issued for them. According to police, word spread that a few of the chronic offenders had decided to leave the Portland area rather than risk re-arrest.

The decreasing numbers of offenders showing up at community court might simply be an indication that shortening the time between citing and appearance from four weeks to two is inconsequential. Hartford, Conn., where virtually everyone shows up, instituted a policy in which offenders appear within 48 hours of citation and get warrants if they don’t.

To make an impact, Day says, a policy would allow police to take offenders straight to Bud Clark Commons where they could make an immediate choice to receive social service help or perform community service.

“If we give a guy a ticket today at 2 o’clock and could drive him down to the Commons, that would be ideal,” he says.

According to Day, discussions about such a policy have taken place, but gained little traction. Some offenders, he says, would likely object to being taken to a social service agency against their will. And Bud Clark Commons already has created controversy for generating a high number of police calls to its surrounding area.

“Do we want to populate that area more and more with people who don’t want to go there in the first place?” Day asks.

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