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Community Court Gives Fresh Start To Marin County Homeless

SAN RAFAEL (KCBS) - Marin County is trying something that has proven successful in more urban environments: helping the homeless get on the "right" side of the law with a new community court.

The program was designed to help Marin's homeless clear their records of minor crimes, in the hopes that they will then be able to turn their lives around. Some skeptics think of Marin as a bucolic community by and large free of homelessness, but statistics suggest Marin has nearly the same number of homeless as the streets of San Francisco, but with far fewer services to help them in the North Bay.

KCBS' Doug Sovern Reports:

"Community court is now in session," a clerk announced from the St. Vincent de Paul Society's free dining room in San Rafael. The community court officially launched on Wednesday.

It's no ordinary court of law, to be sure, and in this courtroom, there were no problems when people broke out in applause upon hearing the clerk's announcement.

"The need is huge," attorney Maura Prendiville with Legal Aid of Marin reasoned. She is considered the driving force behind this new community court. "We're thought of as a wealthy county but there's actually a lot of poverty here. The most recent count, which was done earlier this year, showed almost 5,000 people who are either homeless or precariously housed."

By stark contrast, Marin has an estimated 70 shelter beds for all of the needy, leaving the overwhelming majority with nowhere to go.

"Our clients have tickets for sleeping outside even though there's not a shelter. Open containers, small infractions and the tickets end up getting bigger and bigger," explained St. Vincent de Paul's Cris Jones of the cycle many homeless find themselves in.

It's a cycle Rick Buquia knows all too well.

"I've been in and out of courts, doing volunteer work, paying off fines, doing jail time," he lamented. He has been homeless for three years and is facing a $1,000 ticket he simply cannot afford to pay. "I don't want to go to jail, I don't like jail. I had enough of jail in my days, in my time of life."

This week alone, several dozen homeless signed up for the community court program. They were referred to mental health and substance abuse services in lieu of "traditional" sentences handed down from the bench.

"I hope that it will help people clear up their records and get off the streets," Prendiville summed up the program.

The program has been launched as a six-month pilot, but if it is deemed a success, it very well may become a permanent fixture in Marin County.

(© 2011 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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