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Once the judge arrived in a simply appointed classroom at Veteran’s Village on Wednesday afternoon, the proceedings zipped.

Three dozen or so defendants had mustered whatever dressy clothes they could for a brief chance to walk up to a podium in front of Superior Court Judge Desiree Bruce-Lyle, be presented by an attorney, and, in most cases, have fines, fees and punishments dismissed.

The speedy ceremony betrays little of the behind-the-scenes work that allows defendants to take advantage of homeless court, an unconventional program begun here nearly 25 years ago and now replicated across California and the nation.

These defendants arrive at their hearings by undergoing work that’s often harder than picking up trash on the freeway or paying a couple hundred dollars’ fine: They confront the causes of their homelessness — working to get sober, train for jobs, mend family relationships. That makes their appearance in court less of a judgment day and more of a graduation day.

For many, their appearance in court represents a crucial step in moving forward with their lives: They need the court’s intervention to obtain a valid driver’s license, or simply to quell the constant fear of a police run-in that would result in calling in their warrants for failing to appear in court for past tickets.

Their crimes range. Misdemeanor tickets for jaywalking, running stop signs and red lights and driving without a license or with expired plates dotted the docket Wednesday. Some had been caught with open booze containers, meth or marijuana. Many faced fines and old tickets for riding the trolley and trains without paying. And many had failed to appear in court to deal with their punishments earlier — decisions that multiplied their burdens exponentially.

 Steve Binder, an attorney from the county’s Public Defender’s Office, started homeless court as part of a service fair for homeless veterans called Stand Down. He jokingly refers to “overachievers” — offenders who’ve come through the program with fines that skyrocketed into the $20,000 range when they failed to pay and reconcile with the justice system.

The special court session seeks to set them free, finding their “time served” in a range of programs addressing substance abuse, anger management and other self-sufficiency hurdles sufficient to satisfy lingering fees, fines and punishments. Offenders must be referred by their programs to the court; they can’t just walk in off the street. In some cases, defendants plead guilty to lesser charges to clear a host of others. Clerks place phone calls to clear outstanding warrants right away.

Homeless court turns regular court on its head. Outside of the trappings of a formal courtroom, the judge, prosecutors and defense breeze through dozens of cases in part of an afternoon. The process also acknowledges an offenders’ progress, instead of simply dwelling on transgressions.

“I like to see us making a difference instead of locking people up,” said Bruce-Lyle, the judge.

Deputies from the City Attorney’s Office and the District Attorney’s Office review the defendants’ criminal records and make offers for dismissing the cases. The defendants come a week earlier to meet their attorneys and discuss their options. In that session last week, Binder coached the crowd to recognize their achievements.

Some had found jobs. Others had been sober for months or years after a lifetime of addiction.

“In your programs, a lot of you are working on humbleness and acceptance for all that’s been,” Binder said. “But when you come back next week, you have a lot to be proud of. This is your opportunity to brag.”

Lisa Martinez, 51, came to deal with an old speeding ticket she never went to court for. She’s in a rehab program and working as a dishwasher, hoping to become a landscaper. But her driver’s license is suspended.

“When I got (the ticket), I was at a point in my life where I really didn’t care about much,” she said. “I was just existing to take care of my daughter.”

When Martinez’s partner died after a heart attack two years ago, she spiraled. She drank, smoked weed and did meth. Her roommate kicked her out of her apartment. Her daughter, now 16, went to stay with friends.

“She became the adult,” Martinez said. She started crying as she told the story.

She’d nap on a bench and act like she was waiting for the bus, or find a place to hide in a park or in her car. One night, desperate, Martinez called her daughter. Her daughter’s friend’s family put her up in a hotel, and Martinez entered the Casa de Milagros, a recovery home. She enrolled in Second Chance, a job-training program. The abundantly shy Martinez performed a poem for more than 100 people at her graduation from that program.

She’s been sober for nine months, she said. Her daughter comes to her graduation and program milestone days. She seems overwhelmed when she considers her family’s pride in her now. “All I know is I don’t want to go back to that life,” she said.

Martinez’s outstanding ticket had ballooned to $550 in fines. She showed up to court on Wednesday wearing a navy blazer and a cream blouse. Even though she knew to expect her charges would be dismissed, she was still nervous, she admitted.

“I still have to stand in front of a judge,” she said.

Nerves or not, her appearance went smoothly. Martinez’s attorney told the judge about Martinez’s achievements, and the poem. Martinez’s charges were dismissed.

Over the rest of the hearing, defendants collectively touted months and years of sober living, job training, college courses, volunteer work, hours of counseling and therapy sessions and drug recovery classes. In many of these cases, the steps taken to address their situations represented more than a court might order a defendant to complete. And these defendants had already undertaken their “sentences” voluntarily. A few still have DUI classes to go through. A couple have to come back next month to prove they’re progressing in their recoveries.

But after a minute or two in front of Bruce-Lyle, most of a few dozen homeless San Diegans walked out of the courtroom with a lightened burden on the road to recovery.

All photos by Sam Hodgson.

I’m Kelly Bennett, reporter for Voice of San Diego. You can reach me directly at or 619.325.0531.

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Kelly Bennett

Kelly Bennett is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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