By Nina Ki, OHA Public Policy Advocate
Traffic or criminal infractions that have monetary fees and fines can be prohibitively expensive and debilitating for many people, especially when it becomes a vicious cycle of compounding tickets that the individual will realistically never be able to pay.
The Office of the Public Defender, the Office of the Prosecuting Attorney, and the Hawaiʻi State Judiciary all saw the need for a program to help individuals with lower-level offenses and collectively helped create the Honolulu Community Outreach Court in 2017.
Traditionally, the Prosecutor’s Office and the Public Defender’s Office are adversaries. However, in this case, they consider themselves a working team to help non-violent offenders clear their court cases and start anew. Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Mark Tom, who has been with this program since its inception, explained that “unlike usual traffic court, Community Outreach Court is guided by the principles of the community court model, which attempts to address underlying issues that lead to harmful/criminal behaviors and provide the justice system with meaningful options.”
This model seeks to implement creative approaches to community engagement and uses a risk-need assessment tool to link participants to appropriate interventions and encourages judicial monitoring to promote accountability and offer impactful alternatives to incarceration. The vast majority of Community Outreach Court participants are residentially challenged, unemployed, or ineligible for a Hawaiʻi Driver’s License because of compounding fines and fees that become impossible to pay.
Kaimukī resident Raymond Taumalolo signed up to be a part of this program with skepticism. He didn’t have a valid driver’s license for over 20 years because of mistakes made in his youth, and he wasn’t able to pay the compiling fees and interest on all the traffic infractions he accrued that were sent to collection. “The team called for an intake interview and was very helpful,” Taumalolo said. “They showed me the ropes, I appeared on Zoom court, and I did my community service in no time.”
He is currently waiting for paperwork to go through, but watched his other friends graduate from this program and successfully get their own driver’s license. “Not everyone has the kind of time and money to pay off old tickets that go to collections,” Taumalolo pointed out. “I did this program to do better and get better job opportunities with a valid driver’s license for my wife and kids.”
Taumalolo explained that he had to drive to go to work, and take care of his kids, but always felt afraid of getting caught or incurring more tickets. “After a certain number of tickets and fines, you just give up. I don’t even know how many tickets I had, or how much I owed – I just knew I had a lot.” Taumalolo expressed his gratitude for the outreach court team and highly recommends this program to any individual who is looking to get right with the law and provide for their families.
Applicants are considered on a case-by-case basis as the court targets individuals who have non-violent criminal offenses that generally qualify as “quality of life” offenses – for example, driving without a license, houseless persons who sleep in parks or vehicles who accrue criminal cases for camping in public areas, trespassing, or theft.
Community Outreach Court seeks to address all pending or previously adjudicated cases for participants via community service rather than fines or jail. Additionally, they attempt to recall all existing bench warrants to remove additional barriers that may hinder individuals who are trying to move forward in a positive direction.
Community Outreach Court aims to hold court at locations that are non-traditional, located within the community, and closer to participants.
For example, Waiʻanae Community Outreach Court is located at the Villages of Māʻili, which is a transitional housing site. Before the pandemic, they held court in Honolulu, Kāneʻohe, Wahiawā, and Waiʻanae. Having sites in various communities allowed the agencies to provide greater access to justice for the public and ensure that participants feel more comfortable during the process.
Prior to the pandemic, the outreach court team would routinely walk the various communities on Oʻahu with service providers and outreach teams to reach a greater population of individuals in need of assistance. They also provide presentations to providers to ensure that they’re aware of Community Outreach Court as a resource to anyone qualified and can schedule various intake days at numerous locations across the island.
To learn more about Community Outreach Court call (808) 347-2551.