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placeholder Homeless Court: Breaking a vicious circle with one-time dismissals of minor infractions

Local composer wins international honors for sacred music

Free dining room opens

Outreach to the sick is key ministry for Pittsburg pastor

Relics of St. John Bosco to visit diocese in September

California pro-life pregnancy centers fight moves to regulate free-speech right

Manhattan Forum Conference to focus on ‘keeping faith in the public square’

Vatican issues new norms to deal with abusive priests

Vandals strike at Good Shepherd Church

• Sister Helen Griffin, PBVM
• Sister Mary Agnes Teresa Kovich, PBVM
• Sister Mary Dolora Sullivan, PBVM
• Brother Martin Fallin, FSC
• Father Paul Locatelli, SJ

placeholder August 9, 2010   •   VOL. 48, NO. 14   •   Oakland, CA

Joe Balbie, a member of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps serving with St. Vincent de Paul Society of Alameda County, helps a participant in the Homeless Court program prepare to go before Superior Court Judge Gordon Baranco.
Homeless Court: Breaking a
vicious circle with one-time
dismissals of minor infractions

Alameda County Superior Court Judge Gordon Baranco forgot his black robe, and he presided from a folding table in the St. Vincent de Paul Society of Alameda County’s community center instead of a bench, but his rulings at a court allowing low-income clients to pay outstanding debts using their own personal progress as currency were quite official.

Work with Homeless
Court was life-changing
for JVC volunteer

By Jacqueline Gilvard Landry
Voice correspondent

“It was a great year. It will stick with me forever,” said 23-year-old Joe Balbier, who spent a year of service in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps coordinating the Homeless Court and winter shelter programs at St. Vincent de Paul Society of Alameda County.

The 2009 graduate of Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia said he volunteered with JVC because the Catholic-based organization was aligned with his philosophy. “My Jesuit education gave me the foundation for the Jesuit ideals and principles I hold: service and prayer,” he said.

JVC places volunteers in year-long positions working with marginalized populations, such as the homeless, victims of abuse, refugees and the elderly.

At SVdP, Balbier worked primarily with the Homeless Court, helping clients get low-level infractions and fees dismissed by Alameda County by showing personal progress.

Balbier also handled applications for 30-day vouchers to stay at SVdP’s winter shelter at the Oakland Army Base. “I tried to meet with everyone personally (to) see who was in most need of a voucher,” he said—a change from the prior waiting-list process.

Another new requirement was for clients to complete “achievable goals” to get their vouchers renewed, he said; “It could be as small as making a doctor’s appointment,” he said.

Rather than focus on the strides he made with both programs, Balbier focused on the bigger picture. “I like to direct my work to a divine purpose, an eternal one: for Jesus. By serving others, I am not only helping the client, I am serving Him,” he said.

Balbier returned in July to his native Cleveland where he will begin law school at Cleveland State University this fall, pursuing a dual degree in law and business.

While Balbier said he was excited to return to his hometown, he won’t forget his Oakland experience. “I would recommend JVC or working with Saint Vincent de Paul to anyone. It was a great year.”

JVC said it places more than 300 volunteers in the United States and seven countries yearly. Balbier was one of about 30 volunteers in the Bay Area, 11 in the East Bay. SVdP will be getting another Jesuit volunteer in September, Balbier said.

See www.jesuitvolunteers.org for information.
“This is a court just like the courthouse . . . . The flags are up there, the seal is up there. This is a real court session,” Baranco told some 65 people seeking dismissal of Alameda County misdemeanors, moving violations and court fines through the Homeless and Caring Court program in June.

“In place of you paying for the tickets with money, you have to show you’re striving to better yourself,” explained Joe Balbier, who spent a year of service through the Jesuit Volunteer Corps coordinating SVdP’s referrals to the program.

Homeless Court is intended to break a vicious circle, Balbier said. “When you’re homeless and you can’t get a job because you have tickets, there’s no way to pay the tickets off,” he said.

“By dismissing smaller charges, like running through a red light, speeding, and failure to appear in court . . . (clients) can get their license. Now that they have their license, they can go to their job, or they can take their kids to school,” he said.

Baranco, an Oakland native appointed to the superior court in 1980, was instrumental in bringing the Homeless Court to Alameda County in 2004. There are 16 such programs in California, Balbier said.

The judge, attorneys and staff volunteer their time for the court, which is held about every two months at SVdP, the largest of the referring agencies, Balbier said.

“We are proud to be part of it,” said SVdP Executive Director Philip Arca. The court enables clients to “refocus on employment, education and the future as opposed to fines and penalties that are insurmountable,” he said.

Balbier helped SVdP’s clients complete applications for the program, which include a letter describing personal progress in areas like income, housing, parenting and substance abuse, along with supporting documents like rent receipts or letters from a counselor. Kathie Barkow, the overall coordinator of Homeless Court, determines whether a client will be heard before the judge, Balbier said.

Baranco took a file off his stack and called forward John Jones (not his real name) who stood respectfully at the podium beside Alameda County Public Defender Diane Bellas as she made the case for dismissing about $1,000 in outstanding tickets and fines.

Alameda County Deputy District Attorney Jon Goodfellow took notes from counsel’s table across from Bellas.

“Your honor, Mr. Jones has been clean and sober more than a year, is attending Narcotics Anonymous and pays child support,” Bellas said, adding that Jones was in transitional housing and worked part-time.

“He attends church every Sunday, finds it very stabilizing and he is an honorably discharged veteran,” Bellas continued.

Dismissal would enable Jones to pay off an outstanding loan so he can enroll in community college, she emphasized.

‘You have accepted responsibility’

After questioning Jones about veterans’ programs, Baranco closed the file. “In view of your progress, you have accepted responsibility for a lot of things that you’ve done, all of your fines and fees are dismissed . . . good luck to you,” the judge said, over applause from the other participants.

Although Bellas has defended some important cases since she was appointed Public Defender in 2000, cases like Jones’s are still a big win. “This for me is like going to church . . . It’s delivering a message of hope and receiving a message of hope,” she said.

That’s why Bellas handles almost all of the cases personally, and has done so since she helped launch the Homeless Court program in 2004.

This was a big win for Jones, too. “It’s a monkey off my back,” he said as he left his exit interview with volunteers onsite to provide information on next steps, like obtaining auto insurance or paying child support.

“I’m so glad this program exists. Being in front of the judge was a little nerve-wracking,” he said, but “it was so well worth the effort I put into it.”

Now, Jones said, he can turn his efforts toward getting back to school and making money. “I’m trying to have multiple sources of income,” he said, pulling from his pocket some business cards he printed for freelance computer work. “I’ve actually gotten a little business that way,” he said.

And because clients can only go through Homeless Court once, Jones said he will avoid more tickets and fines: “It’s a good deterrent.”

Bellas agreed, saying she believes that roughly 75 percent of clients do not return to the justice system. “Our recidivism rate is lower than that of almost any other justice program,” she said.

Baranco urged participants to stay out of the justice system, but he also told them to keeping moving forward. “Whatever your next step is and whatever it is you’re recovering from . . . we hope, as you hope, that you just keep it up. No one is perfect, but we hope you keep doing what you’re doing,” Baranco said.

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