Thursday, June 11, 2015

New approach to homelessness in Orange County

Here is the text of the letter that I sent to local officials in Orange County:

I am writing today to Mayor Jacobs and Mayor Dyer, as well as all Orlando and Orange County Commissioners, to propose a smart, cost saving and practical alternative to the present problem of revolving-door arrests of the homeless. Typically, these are low-value arrests for ordinance offenses, minor violations which do not impact public safety. Offenses such as panhandling, camping, open container and the like are deeply rooted in the circumstances which cause the homelessness of individuals. The resulting custodial arrests of these people consume many hours of law enforcement officers' time, jail bed space, medical resources and court docket space.

Arrests of homeless people for ordinance violations compromise the very same resources that would otherwise be applied to serious felony charges and protecting the community from violent crimes. However, the real problem with our current system is that the physical arrest of a destitute person does nothing to improve their circumstances or to solve their underlying problems causing homelessness, those being mental illness, unemployment, drug and alcohol abuse or any combination of thereof.

We propose a program where the ordinance violators are issued a notice to appear, a recognized alternative to a full custodial arrest. That notice informs the violator that the charge against them will be dismissed upon their participation in one of the following rehabilitative steps:

1.    A mental health evaluation
2.    Drug and/or alcohol abuse evaluation
3.    Vocational or housing assistance and rehabilitation
4.    Referral to veterans programs for eligible individuals.

Management of this program, including the referrals, compliance assessments and any reports of failure to participate will be administered by the Office of the Public Defender as we are equipped to identify and address those challenges. We are the singular agency positioned to work with this population and we have both the ability and infrastructure to do it well. While there has been a lot of discussion in regard to resolving the problems of homelessness, this is the first local proposal addressing the criminal justice component.

A similar program has been operated successfully for several years in Pinellas County by the Public Defender of the 6th Judicial Circuit, funded by that County’s Sheriff. The Sheriff, as the operator of the jail in Pinellas County, understands the high-expense, low rewards problem of the conventional approach to ordinance arrests of the homeless. Whether an arrestee is in custody for panhandling or murder, their diabetes, lung cancer and HIV become the problem of the county that confines them.

I look forward to the opportunity to discuss the nuts and bolts of our proposed process to address the problems of the homeless in the justice system using the resources of the Office of the Public Defender. Our plan offers savings of dollars and time for law enforcement, diminishes the burden on the jail system and offers many individuals a way up and out of their current, troubled circumstances. These improvements will depend upon cooperation between our organizations, but we are all able to cooperate when the benefits are as clear as they appear.

Robert Wesley

Public Defender, Ninth Judicial Circuit