City officials with the Community Court attend a Feet Forward event on Oct. 26, 2021. Credit: Anthony Albidrez

Inside one’s home, it is perfectly legal to smoke a cigarette or sip a cocktail or sleep wherever you want. But doing so outside on city property may result in a ticket to show up in court. 

Such violations of the city’s ordinances are common among Boulder’s unhoused population. They can snowball from a missed court date to an arrest warrant to jail time. These penalties can leave a mark on a person’s criminal record that makes it harder to rent an apartment or land a job. 

To help keep people out of jail — where incarceration costs taxpayers more than $160 per day — the city has been dropping charges and connecting people to resources that might help them get housed under its Community Court program. 

Since launching in October 2020, the Boulder Municipal Court and City Attorney’s Office have agreed to dismiss as many as roughly 400 nonviolent municipal charges, according to city officials. They’ve done so on the condition that people take steps toward obtaining certain benefits or documents that might help them get housing.

This includes signing up for Medicaid or Social Security, or applying for a birth certificate or a state-issued ID, which is necessary for signing a lease or applying for subsidized housing. The court also drops cases for people who enroll in the county’s homelessness program. 

The sanctions issued by the court include: 52 orders to obtain a Social Security card, 55 orders to obtain an ID, 38 orders to sign up for food stamps, and 37 orders to obtain medical records, according to the court. All but food stamps can be used to help people obtain forms of identification. Nearly all these tasks were completed.

A presentation this week about the Community Court program from Municipal Court Judge Linda Cooke, who helped start the program, was well-received among members of the Boulder City Council. Mayor Aaron Brockett described it as “phenomenal work.” Others were generally supportive.

Cooke said the court planned to set up the Community Court in a physical location. That plan was reconsidered due to Covid-19.

“We did not envision our program as a mobile court,” Cooke told the Council, “but it was a blessing in disguise. We are meeting people where they are at. We’re going out into the community to conduct court.” 

The Community Court consists of a city prosecutor, clerk and navigator posted up in a parking lot outside Deacons’ Closet on Thursday mornings or in Central Park on Tuesday afternoons. They use a laptop or tablet to stream court sessions with Cooke. While police may be present or nearby, the brochure states: “You WILL NOT be arrested!” 

Such programs, which are widely seen as effective diversion tools, are not new or unique to Boulder. The city’s Community Court is similar to longstanding programs in Oakland, California, Olympia, Washington and Austin, Texas. It was paid for by a $400,000 Department of Justice grant, which is set to expire in September. Cooke said she expects to get a one-year extension for the grant. 

The City Council also showed interest in supporting the program when the grant money runs out. Several members would like the Community Court to be part of a conceptual idea for a day shelter for the city’s unhoused residents. 

Civil rights advocates have long sought to transition away from using the legal system for behavioral health and homlessness services. While the Community Court program requires people to engage with law enforcement, it is intended to send fewer to the Boulder County jail. 

“Historically, that is how we’ve responded, even in cases that don’t involve violence, because this population has such high rates of failure to appear in court that they’d end up with warrants and then go to jail,” Chris Reynolds, a city prosecutor involved with the Community Court, told the Boulder Reporting Lab. 

“Among the unhoused population in Boulder, Black, Indigenous and people of color are overrepresented compared to the overall demographics,” he added. “By taking a problem-solving approach and not a punishment-first approach, we’re trying to do what we can to right these historical wrongs.” 

John Herrick

John Herrick reports on housing, climate, health and local government for Boulder Reporting Lab. He previously covered the state Capitol for The Colorado Independent and environmental policy for VTDigger.org. He is interested in stories about people, power and fairness.