Video: Public defender helps homeless

By George Lewis Correspondent
NBC News
updated 3/15/2006 7:32:10 PM ET 2006-03-16T00:32:10

Homeless Court is the brainchild of San Diego public defender Steve Binder.

"This is one step that helps people build stronger lives," he says.

Binder says homeless people are often intimidated by regular courts, don't show up when they're supposed to and get deeper and deeper in trouble with the law for mostly minor offenses. So why can't they just come into court?

"They can come into court," says Binder. "The problem is, when they come into court, all they do is they get sentenced to fines and sentenced to custody."

So Binder had an idea. Instead of making the homeless come to court, bring the court to the homeless. And give them a shot at cleaning up their records. In 1989, Binder first persuaded judges and law enforcement to try it.

And so they brought the court to a different kind of setting — handball courts behind the gym at San Diego High School.

In homeless court, people can have misdemeanor charges dismissed if they can prove they're serious about turning around their lives.

Randa Pohl is a recovering alcoholic. She's trying to get back her driver's license so she can work. She shows the judge the necklace she got to mark one year of sobriety.

"This is from my sponsor," she says. "It was given to her on her first year."

The judge dismisses the charges pending against her.

"Wonderful. Thank you!" she says, then adds, "Is that it?"

"Congratulations," replies the judge. "Sure, that's it."

"I've always had shame, and now I don't," says Pohl. "I'm just so happy, and my life's so different now."

"We started in San Diego, then it evolved to Ventura," says Steve Binder.

There are now homeless courts across California and in several other states.

"People want to participate in society more fully," adds Binder. "They just need the opportunity."

And they have it, all thanks to one determined guy who believes in redemption.

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