Every Wednesday morning for the past three years, a dozen or so people have met in a basement courtroom for about 90 minutes to process some of the city’s most frequent offenders.
Those people make up Santa Barbara’s Restorative Court, which seeks to rehabilitate homeless individuals who are arrested and cited — dozens and sometimes hundreds of times — for offenses such as open containers of alcohol and illegal camping.
Many of those cited have substance-abuse histories, mental-health issues, or both, and their cases are reviewed by those who make up the court’s core group: police, mental-health workers, public defenders and advocates in the homeless community.
If people remain citation free for six months, their cases are dismissed, and the court works to get those people into substance-abuse programs and/or housing, receiving mental-health treatment and more.
Since beginning in 2011, the Restorative Court has been quietly working in that basement courtroom with over 300 of those clients, and many of those involved in the court’s successes will be gathering Wednesday night to celebrate.
Santa Barbara Women Lawyers is hosting a celebration called “Open Doors Change Lives” at the Cabrillo Arts Pavilion on Wednesday night.
The event is for the court’s partners and agency officials and is not open to the public, but those wanting to learn more about the court or donate can visit the Santa Barbara Women Lawyers website.
Mureen Brown, who works as an outreach specialist for the Santa Barbara Police Department, said other departments of similar-sized cities have come to observe the restorative policing effort in action.
Brown works with Officers Keld Hove and Craig Burleigh to help look for alternatives for chronic offenders.
“We’re excited to share how many people we’ve served and placed in programs,” she said. “There is a way other than arresting and holding our mentally ill people… It’s an expensive band-aid that does not work.”
One of the court’s success stories came when a chronic offender — he had racked up 747 offenses, Brown said — came into the court and was ready to change his life.
“This group of the public is immune to arrests and tickets. They don’t care,” she said.
The man had been a fixture in the homeless community for years, and most thought he was beyond help because of his struggle with alcoholism, Brown said.
That alcoholism almost cost him his life and cost the community hundreds of thousands of dollars between ER visits, jail stays and police efforts.
“He came into Restorative Court, and Hove was able to talk to him and get him to want housing more than drinking,” Brown said.
The man now lives at the Faulding Hotel, and “his life has completely turned around.”
That story is one of several featured in a seven-minute documentary that Brown wrote and directed with help from Life Chronicles and will be shown at Wednesday night’s event.
Brown said she wants the public to know that the Restorative Court is working to get people off the streets and into better lives, even if their work is behind the scenes.
“There is a tremendous group of highly committed people who are working to make this work,” she said. “It is a complete paradigm shift from regular police work.”
— Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.