Homeless court coming to Chatham County

Published: Aug. 17, 2023 at 4:52 PM EDT
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SAVANNAH, Ga. (WTOC) - A new option for those who break the law could soon be coming to Chatham County.

It’s called homeless court and provides services to those experiencing homelessness, instead of law enforcement.

Chatham County Superior Court Judge Lisa Colbert says she doesn’t expect the new court to end homelessness outright, but does hope it stops people from ending up back in court.

It would be a first for the Chatham County legal system. Local leaders met this week to talk about implementing homeless court.

It’s a new legal option that would provide shelter caseworkers and other services to people in legal trouble who are also experiencing homelessness.

“For us, it’s a way to resolve the cases and hopefully help use the power of the court to bring agencies together and resolve them in a way that they don’t come back,” Judge Colbert said.

Judge Colbert says it aims to close cases that could otherwise interrupt work participants are doing to become self-sufficient.

Homeless court would only be for referred defendants charged with low-level, non-violent felonies and misdemeanors.

Cases would be heard in a community space like a local homeless agency, instead of a traditional courtroom.

“Unlike here, when homeless individuals come to court, there’s usually no service provider at the table. There, the goal is that there will be, maybe even multiple,” Judge Colbert said.

Judge Colbert says homeless court could also help fix some legal backlogs.

“Lots of failures to appear because they have no address to receive notice,” she said. “When the list keeps growing of people we can’t reach, can’t give them the notice that the law requires because they don’t have an address, those cases just continue to grow, and they sit there.”

According to the American Bar Association, in cities like Charleston and San Diego that have homeless court, 90% of cases are dismissed as defendants work to fix personal factors that lead to homelessness.

Union Mission, a shelter in Savannah, would be one of the agencies helping.

“Being able to remove those impediments does make it easier for those that have been homeless, who have faced struggles in the past, be able to find a path forward and be able to find that housing or even a job they need to be successful,” Union Mission President/CEO Michael Traynor said.

Judge Colbert says the goal is to keep homeless defendants from reoffending and start a process to take back their life.

“To the extent that we can get cases resolved more efficiently, more effectively, and in a way that hopefully leads to those persons not reoffending, I think it’s a win for everyone, especially the community,” she said.

Judge Colbert hopes that homeless court could start in Chatham County in at least six months.