Court gives Durham panhandlers an alternative to jail

jwise@newsobserver.comOctober 29, 2013 

Thirteen people in court Tuesday, Oct. 29, could be heading to social service agencies instead of jail, in the first tryout for a new policy on handling roadside beggars.

“We feel there is a better way to handle your cases than just prosecution,” Chief District Court Judge Marcia Morey told the defendants. “We’re trying to get you all some services, some help … anything we can do to avoid criminal convictions.”

Defendants who seek and accept help with health, addiction, housing or employment issues could have their charges dismissed when their cases are re-heard in Community Life Court Dec. 18.

Legal Aid, Lincoln Community Health, Alliance Behavioral Health Care, Durham County Social Services, Open Table Ministries and Housing for New Hope had staff members in court so defendants could make contact right away.

“Are you interested in getting any services?” Morey asked defendant Richard Andrews.

“I’d love to,” he said.

Responding to complaints that the city’s roadside solicitation regulations “criminalize poverty,” Morey and City Manager Tom Bonfield agreed to give those charged with panhandling the chance to avoid prosecution if they accepted help to get them permanently off the streets.

Tuesday’s special session was the first time the approach has been applied in court. Durham attorney Scott Holmes, who represented most of the defendants, had arranged with Morey to have a number of cases heard at the same time.

Several other defendants Holmes represents were not in court Tuesday, but also had their cases continued with direction to service agencies.

City Councilman Steve Schewel has promoted the referral approach to panhandlers, which is used in Orange County. It is also included in a package of changes the city is considering that ease roadside begging rules.

The changes were drawn up and recommended to the City Council by the city-county Homeless Services Advisory Committee in August. City Manager Tom Bonfield said they are due for council presentation, along with a city staff analysis, at the Nov. 7 work session.

After the presentation, the council can direct the city administration whether and how to proceed with drafting an amendment to the existing regulation, Bonfield said

Holmes said he hopes the changes will have been adopted before his clients’ December court date, and that their panhandling charges will be dismissed.

Lloyd Schmeidler, who works on homeless services in the city community development office, said he thought Tuesday’s session was “a good start.”

“There was as a lot of encouragement from the court to have people take advantage of the services that are available,” Schmeidler said. “Hopefully they’ll do that between now and Dec. 18.”

Holmes, who directs the Civil Litigation Clinic at N.C. Central University, said the proceeding was “a way different way of handling what isn’t a crime.

“It gave the prosecutors and the judge and the social network … an opportunity to do good,” he said. “We got to see today what the court could do if it tried a different way, and it was really cool.”

Wise: 919-641-5895

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