Special San Joaquin court making difference for the homeless

STOCKTON -- As is often the way of things, Valerie Seaberry hadn't gotten a traffic ticket in years when she was pulled over two or three times within a few months.

She was distracted by family problems. Her ex-husband had been deployed to Afghanistan with the National Guard, leading to a temporary blip in child support, and she was struggling to keep a roof over her head and that of her 12-year-old daughter and 14-year-old son. The traffic fines were stacked in the corner.

The family fell into homelessness, and the traffic fines threatened Sea- berry's driver's license and only way to get to work before she landed in a unique San Joaquin County Superior Court courtroom -- one designed for homeless people.

San Joaquin County Superior Court Judge Barbara Kronlund converted her $1,100 fine into community service, and Seaberry now helps in the cafeteria at St. Mary's Interfaith Community Serv-ices in Stockton.

Kronlund's court is among a handful in the state designed to curb the cycle of homelessness by offering defendants the choice to pay their debt in community service or treatment programs instead of cash.

She holds the court for two hours on the last Friday of each month in a conference room at St. Mary's. Public defenders represent defendants. They sit in an assortment of padded wooden chairs.

"They are members of the community and they are entitled to access to the courts but we know they traditionally don't use the courts," Kron- lund said. "They're pulling themselves out of homelessness, getting to shel- ters, getting substance abuse counsel- ing and transitional housing, and trying to get a driver's license to get transportation and a job and afford- able housing. And jail fines will do nothing but get them further in the hole."

Sometimes, defendants lose paperwork in the confusion of being homeless. Other times, they simply feel uncomfortable making their court dates because of the way they look, she said.

The court converts every $10 of a fine into an hour of community service or treatment program.

The offenses tend to be traffic infractions, open alcohol containers in public or shopping cart violations.

"It's a constant cycle," said Mary Aguirre, deputy district attorney. "And, hopefully, we're helping them get back on board."

Wants to attend Delta College

Martha Robles, 38, said she racked up $4,000 in fines mostly for being under the influence and for possession of drug paraphernalia while she was addicted to crack cocaine. She has been sober for eight months and lives in a Stockton shelter. She attended the court in hopes that clearing the fines would allow her to buy books and attend Delta College to become a substance abuse counselor.

San Diego launched the first such court in 1994. Other counties have followed, including Fresno, Sacramento, Alameda, Los Angeles and Ventura.

By measure of the public defender's office, the program is a success.

It has helped restore driver's licenses to a number of defendants who had them suspended or on hold because they failed to pay fines.

"They would say, 'I have this job offer, but I can't take it because I have no driver's license.' " Many don't have the money to pay the fine at the time, and "it's a Catch-22 situation," Chief Public Defender Jim Larsen said. "They don't have a license so they can't get a job, and they can't pay off the fine because they don't have a job. A number of other cases were because they failed to appear (for court), so they are at risk of being picked up on a warrant. And if they have kids, they have no ability to make arrangements for them. So I think it has been very beneficial."

Numbers are climbing

Several dozen people bring their cases each month. The number started at seven the first month, in January 2006, and climbed to 25 a year later. It hit 43 in May, the last month for which figures were available. By then, a com- bined 384 defendants had brought 979 cases. During one of the summer months, Kronlund said, 60 to 70 de- fendants showed up with a combined 200 cases and she, lawyers and court staff stayed until 6 p.m.

"We have said that was a good problem," she said.

The experience set in place a practice of scheduling cases for the following month instead of promising all cases could be heard the same day.

Seaberry, 45, found out about the court during a homeless rally in Manteca this summer.

The family was living at Hope Ministries in Manteca after she couldn't pay the rent on their Stockton apartment.

"This is a great thing," she said. "I would have had to pay almost $1,100 in fines, and it would have taken me a long time and would have been really difficult."

She has her license and is able to drive to and from work and her volunteer service. The family is back in an apartment with help from an assistance program.

"We agree that they are trying to help themselves, and many have not had anyone to offer them any assistance," Kronlund said. "And since they are making an effort, we agree we also want to."

Bee staff writer Inga Miller can be reached at imiller@modbee.com or 578-2324.