By: Ema Schumer
On the first Monday of every month, defendants and their lawyers file into Judge Roanne Sragow’s courtroom in Harvard Square’s First Parish Church. She wears the same robe there as she does behind the bench in Cambridge District Court, but at the church she sits behind a plastic table on a folding chair.
This nontraditional setting, however, does not make her work there any less important to those who come before her.
Sragow is the presiding judge for the Cambridge District Homeless Court, which offers these monthly sessions to adjudicate on misdemeanor and non-violent felony charges, as well as outstanding warrants, against people experiencing homelessness in the Cambridge area. The court does not sentence the defendants but instead recommends resources for rehabilitation and sometimes requires them to check back in on their progress over the course of multiple hearings.
The court’s most recent session — on March 4 — almost didn’t happen. After heavy snowfall the night before, Sragow and the defendants’ lawyers were worried the people standing trial that day might not make it. But after a two-hour postponement, 14 of the 25 cases on the docket were heard.
Among those who went before the court that day were defendants Cheryl A. Tucker and John A. Chute, alongside their lawyer, Michael C. Hicks, and a team of 12 Harvard Law School students who assist on the cases.
Tucker and Chute were each charged with different crimes, but their defense team, local law enforcement, and Sragow agree that the Homeless Court provides the two of them — and other defendants who appear before the court — opportunities unavailable in the traditional District Court setting.
Though less than 0.5 percent of Cambridge’s population was homeless in 2015 — the last year for which statistics are available — homeless individuals accounted for nearly 16 percent of Cambridge arrests that year, according to Cambridge Police Department data.
Hicks, who represents almost all defendants who go before the Homeless Court, said that most of his clients — like many people experiencing homelessness who enter the criminal justice system — commit crimes out of necessity.
“A lot of them are committing crimes because they’re homeless,” Hicks said. “Most people that have access to housing, monetary abilities, medical care, food, clothing, don’t commit crimes.”
Chute, who was before the court this month for charges of breaking and entering a motor vehicle, said that resources for people experiencing homelessness can be hard to come by, driving people to resort to actions they would not otherwise undertake.
“People keep committing crime because they’re broke,” he said. “They don’t have money, they don’t have resources, and they don’t know what else to do.”
But addiction also complicates many defendants’ situations. In Chute’s case, he said he has been under the influence of drugs or alcohol during each of his arrests.
Chute, who is 39 years old, first came in contact with the criminal justice system at age 14 for distributing marijuana in John F. Kennedy Park, he said. As a teenager, he started abusing alcohol, which led him to other drugs including cocaine and heroin.
In 2013, he was arrested for robbing a bank and consequently served two years in a maximum security prison in Walpole, Mass. The robbery was the result of an opioid addiction, Chute said. He was medically prescribed opioids after sustaining an injury while working as a carpenter, but eventually the doctor stopped prescribing the pills.
“When I got cut off from my medication, it just became too expensive buying on the street so I turned to heroin, which was a cheaper alternative,” he said. “I needed the money. I was broke and no matter what I did we just never had enough money because of the drugs.”
Law School student Libby S. Bova, who oversees the law students affiliated with the Homeless Court and works with Chute on his case, said that crimes of necessity — such as shoplifting or trespassing — are the result of failed support systems for vulnerable populations.
“We’ve criminalized that behavior, but in some cases if you’re starving or if you really need food or water or you need basic necessities like toilet paper and you’re stealing them from CVS, you can talk about that as a crime,” she said. “But, you can also talk about that as a failure of society to ensure that people of all walks of life regardless of if you have an income or a home have basic necessities.”
Tucker, who also went before Sragow in the most recent session, was arrested as a direct result of substance abuse; her charge was for drinking in public.
Tucker — who is now 49 — was first arrested when she was 29 years old for possession of heroin. Though she did not go to prison for her first arrest, she said she has served a total of 16 years in prison for crimes “primarily done because of drugs” or as “a means to get drugs.”
Bova said that many of the people who come before the court for these kinds of crimes do so because they do not have other places to go.
“They’re just in a situation where they don’t have a lot of options of where else to do that activity, or it’s kind of a side consequence of their status that if you don’t have a home where you could do the things people do day-to-day, all of the sudden when it’s happening on the street it’s a public disturbance or disorderly conduct,” she said.
Many cities across the country have variations on Cambridge’s Homeless Court, and the Harvard Square session is one of two located in the state of Massachusetts.
The Cambridge Police Department and the Middlesex County District Attorney’s office created the Homeless Court in 2016 to provide health and social services to Cambridge’s homeless population, according to Middlesex District Attorney Marian T. Ryan. In 2017, the Homeless Court moved from Central Square to Harvard Square.
Sragow said that Cambridge District Court — where homeless individuals’ cases were previously tried alongside all other cases that came before the body — moved to Medford, Mass. nine years ago because of asbestos in its original building.
The court was unable to provide assistance to homeless defendants after its move to Medford because they were not showing up for their court hearings, according to Ryan.
“It was clear that we have a large population of folks who are homeless in Cambridge who often came into contact with the criminal justice system who weren’t really getting those cases resolved,” Ryan said.
The Medford location is not near public transit and takes just under an hour to reach from Harvard Square and Central Square — where much of the city’s homeless population resides — using a combination of both transit and walking. Because the cases could not be resolved without the defendants present, the court was unable to offer medical and mental health care, and other resources, according to Ryan.
Sragow estimated that the default rate — the proportion of defendants who do not show up for their hearings — among homeless individuals in District Court was more than 75 percent. In the Homeless Court, the default rate is negligible, she said.
The Homeless Court brings together representatives from an array of social and health services; Cambridge police, Harvard University police, and MIT police; and the law student defense team.
The multidisciplinary group convenes prior to each court session to discuss each case on the docket. The group works to determine what it believes is the best course of action for each defendant, according to Sragow.
Compared to his experiences in District Court, Chute said the Homeless Court presents distinct advantages for his particular situation.
“It’s a lot better for somebody like me because they’re more geared towards trying to find you help and resolve the problems that led you to be arrested and led you into the court,” he said.
If he had gone through District Court, Chute said he’d likely be “locked up” right now.
“I’d be sitting in Middleton doing absolutely nothing, getting in trouble, no recovery,” Chute said of the jail where he might be held if awaiting District Court trial. “I’d be sitting there and I’d be faced with all of the same problems when I get out.”
Sragow said that the Homeless Court is designed to help the individuals experiencing homelessness who come before it — not to punish them.
“We are looking to rehabilitate — get people back on their feet — rather than be punitive,” she said.
The Homeless Court’s various affiliates match defendants with social services in Cambridge and help them attain resources in an attempt to remedy the issues that brought them before the court in the first place.
To rehabilitate defendants, Hicks and the Law School students meet with the defendants individually to ascertain what services they need.
“Our perspective as students is to follow clients into whatever needs they might have,” Bova said. “We want to understand what goals they might have and help them work towards that while simultaneously working towards a positive resolution in the criminal case.”
Some rehabilitative pathways include alcohol and drug treatment, assistance in procuring government benefits, and finding employment. The students may also help their clients obtain a Massachusetts identification card, which is often a prerequisite to qualify for benefits or apply for jobs.
“I’ve been able to get my ID, social security, I’m looking for a job, I’m going to AA, I have a sponsor, I’m meeting new people and making new friends, staying sober,” Chute said. “All types of good stuff.”
The Homeless Court, however, faces challenges with recidivism as defendants cycle in and out of the system.
Cambridge Police officer Eric R. Helberg, who oversees CPD’s Homeless Outreach Program, said that recidivism is particularly high among those who struggle with addiction. Cambridge does not track recidivism rates in the Homeless Court.
Tucker has faced this challenge throughout her years in the criminal justice system.
“I was working my ass off to stay clean and sober because it took me like 20 years to get out of the system or being on parole or probation or anything with the courts, and here we go all over again,” she said.
She said that for others, though, the Homeless Court can feel like “a slap on the wrist” and isn’t sufficient to deter some offenders.
Sragow, however, said that if a defendant returns to the Homeless Court enough times, she can return them to District Court.
“We don’t give them a pass,” she said.
Similarly to Tucker, Chute has relapsed before. His first appearance before the Homeless Court was resolved in August 2018. But after staying sober and finding a job at Otto’s Pizza, he had a drink and ultimately became unemployed. In February, he wound up back in the Homeless Court with his breaking and entering charges — the same charge he faced in August.
“I am fearful because I’ve tried to stay sober many times in my life and I’ve failed a bunch of times. So yeah I am nervous about it,” he said.
“I’m really grateful that I’m not in jail. I’m getting a chance to do this again and I don’t take it lightly,” he added.
At the March 4 hearing, both Tucker and Chute provided updates on their rehabilitation progress and received encouragement for their efforts.
Despite anecdotal trends, Helberg still said he does not believe high recidivism rates discredit the court’s work.
“We take our successes individually,” he said. “Rather than trying to say we’ve got 25 or 50 [percent] success rate, if we can get one homeless individual into long term rehab and get them housed, that’s a huge success.”