One might expect a court of law to be a solemn and silent place, yet on the morning of Tuesday, Jan. 28, Department 2 of the Santa Barbara Courthouse is surprisingly noisy. A 94-year-old door opens every other minute, screeching like a dying cat before shutting with a preponderant thud. Attorneys line up in a fidgety queue behind the bar, texting, skimming documents, and whispering to clients. The leather of the ancient seats groan and creak under a full occupancy. Feet tap and phones ring. Occasionally the bailiff, hulking in his bulletproof vest, excoriates the crowd to be quiet. The atmosphere is thick, though from dust, agitation, boredom, or the reek of weed, no distinguishment can be made.
The judge pushes through an onslaught of motions and hearings before arriving at a particular case involving the defendant’s forcible entry of the residence of his ex-partner. The case is interesting given the imprecision in determining the amount of force the defendant used when making his entrance and his intention for doing so — a potential felony charge lurks in that gaping gray area. The judge, however, seemed to give the defendant the benefit of the doubt, and the District Attorney barely protested the arguments of his assigned Public Defender. The crime was nonviolent. Rather than face a hefty fine and incarcerative sentence, the defendant will instead be subject to a period of extended parole, paid for by the state. His ex-partner, meanwhile, will be designated as a protected person. Contacting or approaching them for any reason would constitute a violation of his parole.
In another state, or even another city, the judge’s ruling could have been far more severe. Firstly, the offense (technically a burglary) might have been charged as a felony in the preliminary hearing. Secondly, the defendant was able to qualify for Santa Barbara’s Restorative Court, otherwise known as “Homeless Court,” which is a program designed to rehabilitate or provide services to people living without homes, as opposed to persecuting them — as was previously the trend.
Restorative Courts have been popping up in California since 2009, after the state was sued for harassing people sleeping on the street with unpayable fines and snowballing jail terms. Now they exist in varying forms across most of California’s districts and nine other states. Limited as the Courts’ resources are, their objective is to assuage the damage homelessness causes on the whole community. This is quite costly. As a result, Restorative Court can only accept a fraction of the people who qualify.
This defendant was one of the lucky few. However, any further offense could remove the defendant from his tentative slot in Restorative Court. He was already on parole for a previous unlawful entry.