Community Care Court turns arrests into life-changing opportunities

Inside Courtroom 2 in Sarasota County, there is a new approach to ending homelessness. The judge sentences those who agree to receive help instead of punishment.

Community Care Court, the first program of its kind in Florida, allows the judge to work with homeless defendants to get them off the street and to turn their lives around.

“Community Court is going to try and put you better than you were. To do that we need your cooperation,” Judge David Denkin told a group of defendants. “I ask that you show up, I ask that you try, and I ask that you be honest with the staff.”

Each faced a non-violent criminal charge; open containers, trespassing, and public urination top the list.

The program starts the moment they say ‘yes.’

“We will discuss your progress, any obstacles that you may be running into. And we will attempt to overcome those obstacles,” the judge said.

However, getting a ‘yes’ from some can be a challenge.

“I’ll do my 30 days and go,” one defendant said.

“To be honest with you David, I’m drunk,” another told Judge Denkin.

Out of 45 cases, only 10 accepted the help.

An open container violation brought Donny Garrett into court, but his problems started two years ago, when health problems caused him to lose his job.

“I was offered the program. He said, ‘If you take this program, I’ll drop the charges.’ I said, ‘OK, let’s do it.’ It sounded pretty reasonable,” Garrett said.

Caseworkers connected him with medical help and a place to stay.

“Some people want to be saved, other people want to be helped and some people don’t. Because of my physical condition, it was a hard time for me. Now I feel as though I’m getting back on my feet and it’s a good thing,” Garrett explained.

Some may not want the help now, but Community Care Court doesn’t plan to give up.

“We are going to continue to offer opportunities to them to get on the right path,” said City Of Sarasota Homelessness Response Coordinator Kevin Stiff.

The Gulf Coast Community Foundation donated $15,000 toward the cost of Community Care Court.

Since it first started, 21 people have entered the program and five have graduated, having their criminal charges dismissed.