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Steve Binder, Co-founder Of Innovative Court Program, Recognized As A KPBS Community Hero For His Work With The Homeless

— Deputy Public Defender Steve Binder, who co-founded a game-changing court program that helps homeless individuals get back on their feet and leave the streets, has been named a Community Hero by KPBS and the National Conflict Resolution Center.

“We understand that being mired in the criminal justice system is an impediment to reclaiming your life and living lawfully,” said Binder, who launched the San Diego Homeless Court Program in 1989. “Part of what we do in Homeless Court is that we set aside (the idea of) guilt and innocence. Not that we don’t want people to be responsible, but we redirect the conversation and our focus to what has somebody done to reclaim their lives.”

The American Bar Association’s Commission on Homelessness and Poverty has called San Diego’s Homeless Court Program - a venue in which the homeless can resolve misdemeanor criminal cases without fear of facing punishing fines or the specter of custody - the first of its kind in the nation. There are now 70 homeless courts nationally, he said.

The Homeless Court Program is a significant departure from the traditional trappings of San Diego Superior Court. A chief difference is where the sessions are held. Rather than taking place in a downtown courtroom, Homeless Court convenes in spaces belonging to various social service agencies, such as Veterans Village of San Diego, which provides services to military veterans and their families.

Another difference is the comprehensive approach taken by the program. It recognizes homelessness as a multipronged social problem, not a criminal justice problem. “If an individual does not have the wherewithal to live lawfully in our community, they are going to break laws again,” Binder said. “And they are going to repeat the cycle. In many respects, hitting homeless people with convictions and adding to their burden pushes them further outside of our community. It’s counterproductive to our desire and intent to build public safety.”

Binder says finding a solution to the legal problems of the homeless requires a collaborative approach that involves prosecutors, public defenders and social service agencies. To be eligible for Homeless Court, an individual must be referred by a social service agency and show progress in following an action plan toward self-sufficiency. Participants are often in programs that address ongoing difficulties, such as mental health issues, substance abuse and lack of employment skills.

As a young public defender, Binder says he could see the criminal justice system was not adequately addressing the problems of the homeless. It was in the late 1980s when the need for a special court became crystal clear to him. He said that’s when the founders of the annual event Stand Down, an intervention initiative by Veterans Village of San Diego for homeless veterans, presented a startling statistic: 116 of 500 homeless veterans surveyed said that their greatest need was to resolve outstanding bench warrants.

The next year, Stand Down held the first San Diego Superior Court session - in a tent. Demand was so high that court participants were spilling out the back of the tent. The judge announced his first ruling and the participant walked away.

“There was an audible gasp - not just by the court participants, but by the advocates and the service providers - because the paddy wagons didn’t show up,” Binder said. “They realized this was a real opportunity to turn things around.”

Binder recently turned 60 and he says he will be retiring as a public defender at the end of March this year. Nonetheless, he will continue his work with Stand Down and helping to create homeless court programs in other cities. As he put it: “There is more to be done.”

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