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Reno Community Court Relaunches To Connect Homeless With Services, Not Jail Time

Four masked people are sitting at a table. Christopher Hazlett-Stevens is sitting furthest away, facing the camera, peering over his glasses at a man in a black sweatshirt, work boots, and a face shield, with his back to the camera.
Lucia Starbuck
KUNR Public Radio
Judge Christopher Hazlett-Stevens (center, facing the camera) presiding over a case at Reno Community Court at the Community Assistance Center in Reno, Nev., on April 7, 2021.

The Reno Municipal Court relaunched its Community Court program Wednesday to provide unhoused individuals who have committed minor offenses with resources instead of jail time. KUNR’s Lucia Starbuck stopped by to learn more.

Instead of entering a courtroom [and] facing a judge in a black robe, people are greeted by service providers seated at round tables at the Community Assistance Center in Reno.

Christopher Hazlett-Stevens is wearing a yellow and blue tie. He’s sitting in a chair and smiling at the camera.
Credit Lucia Starbuck / KUNR Public Radio
KUNR Public Radio
Judge Christopher Hazlett-Stevens at Reno Community Court at the Community Assistance Center in Reno, Nev., on April 7, 2021.

Judge Christopher Hazlett-Stevens presides over the cases.

“Regular court is a structured environment. It’s an environment that sometimes creates a lot of fear in people. Sentences might include jail time, they might include fines that homeless individuals can’t really pay, or community service obligations that they might not be able to meet, as well,” Hazlett-Stevens said.

Community Court typically serves people experiencing homelessness who get ticketed for crimes such as trespassing, urinating in public, or breaking an open container law.

Instead of jail time or fines, individuals are connected with resources like housing, along with mental health and substance use services. When the pandemic allows, individuals will be required to complete community service if applicable. Hazlett-Stevens said his previous experience as a prosecutor, and now as a judge, have convinced him a new approach is needed.

“So, what we would traditionally do is, police would arrest someone or cite them, often arrest them, and then they would be in jail. And then the judge would meet with them in custody by video arraignment, they would generally plead to the crime, and then they would be released and it would be this cyclical pattern. They would be out the next day or a few days later, and then they would be back on the street, and then we would re-do this again and again, and it wasn’t working,” Hazlett-Stevens said.

Community Court initially started in the summer of 2019 and ended as the pandemic began. The program recently received $183,000 from the National Community Courts Initiative to continue.

Maggie Dickson is wearing a blue surgical mask and blue floral shirt, and is facing the camera.
Credit Lucia Starbuck / KUNR Public Radio
KUNR Public Radio
Maggie Dickson at Reno Community Court at the Community Assistance Center in Reno, Nev., on April 7, 2021.

Maggie Dickson provides counseling for mental health and substance use with the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office. She returned to help with the program. She provides a quick assessment to determine what a participant’s needs are. Dickson said it can be difficult for people to talk about these things so she puts extra effort into building a rapport.

“Letting them know that everything is confidential, straight up. And then just letting them know, I’m just here to help you, I’m not here to judge you, I’m not here to cast you into any label or anything like that,” Dickson said.

Dickson said throughout the pandemic, mental health and substance use service providers have had to shut their doors due to a lack of funding and COVID-19 restrictions. These closures, along with business shutdowns, continued to affect the unhoused community.

“A lot of services fell off. So, people were kind of lost. I really think, especially with limited places that they could go when the casinos were all closed, when the hotels were kind of closed, people didn’t have anywhere else to go. They were literally on the street. And then it becomes survival and it’s a very hard world,” Dickson said.

The reopening of Community Court has been a hopeful change for many service providers because now they can connect with community members face-to-face again.

“It can be the difference for someone, you know, going back out to the street today versus getting into housing and starting that journey to really get them on their feet again,” Hauley Barbarin said.

Hauley Barbarin is wearing a blue surgical mask and bright orange shirt, and is facing the camera. There are police officers behind her filling out paperwork.
Credit Lucia Starbuck / KUNR Public Radio
KUNR Public Radio
Hauley Barbarin at Reno Community Court at the Community Assistance Center in Reno, Nev., on April 7, 2021.

Barbarin is the community outreach coordinator for Health Plan of Nevada Medicaid. She connects people to transitional housing and transportation needs. She also helps people sustain employment.

“We all, at some point, go through something where you need that extra support from someone. Everyone goes through a hard time, especially with an unknown pandemic, and people losing their jobs that never thought they would, or, you know, just so many different barriers that came up for people,” Barbarin said.

Community Court typically provides services for those with minor offenses, but it is open to help others who are struggling. On Wednesday, they provided one participant, Jaime, a plan to manage his fines for a charge that took place over a year ago.

“I’ve never been in a courtroom like this, where they had so many people trying to help you instead of, you know, just giving you more time. It was different. It was a lot better,” Jaime said.

Jaime isn’t experiencing homelessness, but he said it’s been difficult to keep up financially during the pandemic.

“I lost two jobs because of COVID. I lost one because I couldn’t have daycare, and I lost the other one because, you know, lack of work. It was kind of tough, but you know, that’s hopefully in the past now, just you know, restart, finish this up,” Jaime said.

Community Court will continue every Wednesday, starting at 9 a.m., and anyone is welcome to talk to service providers there.

Lucia Starbuck is a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project.

Lucia Starbuck is an award-winning political journalist and the host of KUNR’s monthly show Purple Politics Nevada. She is passionate about reporting during election season, attending community events, and talking to people about the issues that matter most to them.
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