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With so many homeless caught up in the criminal justice system, N.O. holds court at a shelter - 3

Waiting for traffic court at the New Orleans Mission.
Cheryl Gerber
Waiting for traffic court at the New Orleans Mission.

Our ongoing series Unprisoned has been bringing you stories of how mass incarceration affects New Orleans.

Last time, we learned about New Orleans Municipal Court, the largest criminal court in Louisiana. Today, we follow Municipal Court to the New Orleans Mission — where a large number of homeless people who are facing municipal charges are being served directly.

Leroy Perry is the Re-Entry Coordinator at the New Orleans Mission, one of the city’s largest homeless shelters. A week before Municipal Court came to the New Orleans Mission, Perry points to the corner of the Mission’s Transitional House.

“The judge sits right here in his robe, and he sets up just like he would in the courtroom with his clerk and everybody right here," Perry says. "He even has his nameplate. It’s just like court here."

To understand why Louisiana's highest volume criminal court holds sessions at a homeless shelter is to understand how intertwined the criminal justice system has become with homelessness in New Orleans.

“A lot of the people that are homeless, and hang around here and come here for our services, they have legal problems hanging over their head — that if they can’t get to, they’re afraid to get to," Perry says. "And this is very reassuring to them. Because the judge comes here, and we let them know: we’re not trying to take anybody to jail. We’re trying to get your problem resolved, and that’s what they do: they bring them here and get it resolved.”

People who come through this system are poor.

Brandi Studer is the social worker for the Orleans Parish Defenders in Municipal Court. People who work at the court call it Muni. “People who come through this system are poor,” says Studer.

Orleans Parish Defenders, or OPD, represent around 85 percent of the people arrested in Orleans Parish. Which means approximately 85 percent of people arrested are at or below the poverty level. Studer’s job is to keep these clients out of jail by getting them back into school or into a substance abuse program, or maybe a bed. Whatever each person needs.

“A lot of our clients come because they were panhandling, or they have a mental illness crisis in public and the cops don’t know what else to do with them but to arrest them, or their families don’t know what else to do but call the cops,” says Studer. “And then they end up in the system, they end up spending a couple days in jail and getting court costs and fines and fees.”

Which are hard to pay when you don’t have a job, never mind a reliable place to sleep. The Orleans Parish Defenders estimate that at least one-quarter of their Municipal Court clients are homeless, and at least one-third suffer with some level of mental illness. The numbers are so high, Muni holds three specialized courts: mental health, human trafficking and homeless court.

Document stamps at the Municipal Court session held at the New Orleans Mission.
Credit Cheryl Gerber / Unprisoned
Document stamps at the Municipal Court session held at the New Orleans Mission.

Most often, the homeless are charged with public intoxication, obstruction of a public passageway (often from sleeping), or trespassing (often, sleeping in an abandoned building). Some people are arrested so frequently, the judges know them by sight. Public Defender Lauren Anderson has one client who has been arrested 186 times.

“But these aren’t people who are walking around with iPhones and calendars,” says Anderson. “Some of them don’t even know where they are, what day of the week it is. So remembering that 'I need to be in Section B of Municipal Court a month-and-a-half from now' is just impossible, and they’ll say things to us like, ‘Well, I remember getting this ticket from this officer, but then one day it rained and my ticket got wet.’ And people don’t believe that, but that is an actual thing that happens. These are people who are sleeping under bridges.”

A ticket, or summons, from a police officer, or a subpoena from the court, is a sheet of paper, and pretty much the only way someone knows when to appear in court. You can call the clerk of court, but if you don’t know what section you’re in and call the wrong clerk, or your name was spelled incorrectly in the system, or your birthday is off, chances are, no one will find your case.

“I was in court one day when a judge said: ‘Put the papers under your pillow, and that way you won’t lose them,’” recalls Brandi Studer. “And the girl goes, ‘I don’t have a pillow. I don’t have a bed. I don’t know what you’re missing about why I couldn’t come to court. I don’t have a permanent place to sleep.’”

Public Defender Lauren Anderson.
Credit Cheryl Gerber / Unprisoned
Public Defender Lauren Anderson.

Public Defender Lauren Anderson recalls one day in court, when she was trying to figure out a better way to resolve these cases for her homeless clients, many of whom just don’t come to the courthouse.

“And so it started as kind of an idea to go to the Mission, and take a bus there,” recounts Anderson, “and just try to pick everybody up and bring them here one day — and Judge Early’s like: ‘Why don’t we go there?’”

“Right,” recalls Municipal Court Judge Sean Early. “I came up with the idea. Might be easier if we just came down to the Mission and brought the court down there.”

The first time Judge Early brought his staff, along with city attorneys, to the New Orleans Mission, it was such a success that the second time he convinced Judge Jones, from traffic court, to come, too.

Inside the Mission’s main building, Public Defender Laura Bixby stands outside the chapel, waiting to ask people if they want to see one of the judges about a case. It involves some logistics.

“So we can’t access court database outside of the court building,” explains Bixby. “So we have a couple people at the court, and we basically are like, texting and calling names, and then he’s running it on the database, then reporting back to us, like, emailing, faxing, whatever it takes to get some information about the case back over here. So, it's not the most efficient, but…”

But worth it. The idea is to clear warrants for arrest, called attachments, so that people don’t get arrested the next time they interact with the police. But a lot of cases get left open simply because they never get updated into the system.

It sounds like people are not even sure what their legal status is a lot of the time.

“Sometimes people know that they missed court,” says Bixby. “But a lot of times, you know, people have court cases in four different courts over the span of several different years, and they have no clue which ones they resolved, which ones they missed court on, what happened with the case, what they were even charged with.”

“Sometimes it’s the fear of you not knowing the outcome and nobody wants negativity or wants to hear no or rejection,” says Stanley Walsh, sitting inside what’s usually the living room of the Mission’s Transitional house, waiting to see a judge. “This is a more friendlier setting. Not police or anything. You know, sometimes people have a fear of the law unnecessarily.”

Not so at Municipal Court at the Mission. Here, says Walsh, “you know that they generally trying to help you in this situation. So you’re more willing to just come to rectify your problems.”

Walsh’s friend Tonyell agrees. “Once you come here you’re not in a position where you don’t know if you’re going to walk out. You see what I mean?” asks Tonyell. “So, it’s one of those things. You come to a neutral ground outside of the courthouse and you have a possibility of actually leaving.”

Desiree Charbonnet, chief judge of New Orleans Municipal Court.
Credit Eve Abrams / Unprisoned
Desiree Charbonnet, chief judge of New Orleans Municipal Court.

This fear of court is common, but people are almost never taken into custody simply for showing up. In fact, Desiree Charbonnet, the chief judge of Municipal Court, says when cases don’t involve guns or violence, she does anything she can to not lock up a defendant.

“I’m always looking for ways to divert non-violent offenders from the criminal justice system because I just —over the years I’ve not seen that having any kind of a positive effect on crime or on their lives, either.”

“For every dollar you spend on mental health and substance abuse treatment, you have downstream savings of up to $3 in the criminal justice system,” says Jeffrey C. Rouse, a forensic psychiatrist and the Orleans Parish Coroner. In Louisiana, coroners are in charge where the mental health and legal systems intersect.

Nationally, it’s estimated that about one-third of chronically homeless people have untreated mental illness. Rouse says once someone’s wrapped up in the system, it’s a little too late. You can bring them treatment, but the real savings of lives and money is in primary prevention.

“The bottom line is that New Orleans can be a very, very tough place to grow a brain," he says. "From difficulty accessing economic equality; to access to good, nutritious food; to access to good education; to lead poisoning, to early exposure to trauma.”

These kinds of systemic problems aren’t fixed by arresting people and locking them up — but the court can help. Take David Young. He had a complicated case involving a domestic abuse charge, and at one point, he was suicidal. But through the court he was sent to a mental health facility, and then a drug class. Young was eager to come to the Mission to see his public defender, and the judge.

“He shook my hand, he remembered who I was,” recounts Young, beaming. “When I walked in I said 'Thank you again for saving my life.' He did, Judge Early saved my life. He showed concern and just wanting to see me live instead of die.”

Then Judge Early did what he’d done for many at Municipal Court at the Mission: he told David Young his fines were dismissed, he had no court costs, and his one year of unsupervised probation was complete.

“There’s nothing on my back now,” says a relieved Young. “Now I don’t have anything to be concerned about as for court, and that really feels good.”

Which is exactly the point: to get people out of the system and help them move forward with their lives.

Unprisoned: Stories From The System is produced by Eve Abrams and brought to you by New Orleans Public Radio and Finding America, a national initiative produced by AIR, the Association of Independents in Radio, Incorporated, and with financial support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Wyncote Foundation, the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Subscribe to Unprisoned on iTunes for more stories about the effects of mass incarceration on our city, and find photographs, links to resources and more on our Facebook page.

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Eve Abrams first fell in love with stories listening to her grandmother tell them; it’s been an addiction ever since.