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Constructive Alternatives to Criminalization

The following post appears courtesy of the Access to Justice Initiative   The Department of Justice has released a new guide, “Reducing Homeless Populations’ Involvement in the Criminal Justice System.”  The guide is intended to generate greater awareness in the field among law enforcement, courts, prosecutors, defenders, state and local legislators, advocates, social service providers, and the homeless about  Department of Justice resources available to serve homeless people, and those at risk of homelessness, who are involved in the criminal justice system. This population includes those with mental health and substance abuse issues, juveniles, and victims of domestic violence. This tool should be used as a guide for stakeholders seeking to implement innovative justice system strategies that reduce this vulnerable population’s contact with the criminal justice system. Read the Guide  (PDF) The guide is being issued in conjunction with the release of a new report, Searching Out Solutions: Constructive Alternatives to Criminalization, outlining alternatives for communities seeking to break the cycling of homeless people through the justice system.  In response to the Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing (HEARTH) Act, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness and the Access to Justice Initiative of the Department of Justice with support from the Department of Housing and Urban Development convened a summit on the development of constructive alternatives to the criminalization of homelessness. The summit participants shared information on effective and promising practices that serve as alternatives to criminalization and are improving the lives of individuals experiencing homelessness and the community as a whole. For example, participants learned about the San Diego, California Homeless Court Program (HCP), which was launched in 1989 with a grant from the Justice Department. The HCP builds on partnerships between the court, the prosecutor, the public defender, local shelters, service agencies, and participants experiencing homelessness. It is designed for citizens experiencing homelessness to resolve outstanding misdemeanor warrants and offenses (principally "quality-of-life" infractions such as unauthorized removal of a shopping cart, disorderly conduct, public drunkenness, and sleeping on a sidewalk or on the beach). Participants voluntarily sign up for the HCP through a participating homeless service provider and participate in a series of program activities before appearing in court. Participants get credit for “time served” in program activities that address the underlying causes of their homelessness, like life-skills, chemical dependency or AA/NA meetings, computer and literacy classes, training or searching for employment, healthcare (physical and mental), and counseling. The alternatives to criminalization policies identified in the Searching out Solutions report were developed from the discussion at the summit and have been effective in reducing and preventing homelessness in several cities around the country. The Searching Out Solutions report identifies three solutions, examples of specific strategies and interventions, and their successful implementation in communities across the country:
  • The creation of comprehensive and seamless systems of care: Partnerships between local organizations and other service providers and government programs to combine housing and services that are supported by communitywide planning and address gaps in service delivery. 
  • Collaboration between law enforcement and behavioral health and social service providers:  Collaboration between service providers and law enforcement regarding outreach to individuals and specialized crisis intervention training that limit the number of arrests for non-violent offenses. 
  • Alternative justice system strategies:  Strategies that provide alternatives to prosecution and incarceration and that offer reentry planning for individuals who are returning to the community after interaction with the criminal justice system, including  use of specialty courts, citation dismissal programs, holistic public defenders offices, and reentry programs.
Last month representatives from the Department of Justice joined the Interagency Council on Homelessness for a webinar providing information about Department of Justice resources that can help support implementation of effective model policies, practices and programs identified in the Searching out Solutions report.  For more information: View the webinar presentation. Read the report, "Searching Out Solutions: Constructive Alternatives to Criminalization" and the guide, "Reducing Homeless Populations’ Involvement in the Criminal Justice System" (PDF).  
Updated April 7, 2017