Chandler Support Court aims to help, not punish - SanTan Sun News SanTan Sun News

Chandler Support Court aims to help, not punish

October 10th, 2021 development
Chandler Support Court aims to help, not punish

By Ken Sain
Staff Writer

Chandler Police Lt. Brian Dunn was talking about the city’s new Support Court at September’s Coffee with a Cop event. Another officer leaned in with a quick reaction:

“Game changer.”

There are a lot off hopes this new court will be just that. Scheduled to start next month, it could tackle a number of problems – including homelessness, crime, drug abuse, and lowering the number of cases that current courts are managing.

So, what exactly is a Support Court?

“It’s both a carrot, to get folks who are fairly service-resistant … to get into services,” said Riann Balch, the city’s community resources manager. “On a normal day they’re not going to engage in these services, but in lieu of jail, maybe [they] are a little bit more motivated.”

The stick is possible jail time, a criminal record and all the difficulties that brings for the rest of one’s life. The carrot is a chance to address issues and rebuild their life. The hope is that most people picked up for petty crimes will choose the latter.

Balch said the key to making the Support Court work is the city’s Navigator program. They do outreach with the mostly homeless population and try to steer them to resources that will help them turn their lives around.

Ashley Halterman said they know how to approach them, because more than half of them have been in those shoes – including her.

“We’ve all done jail time, we’ve all had our, fun, I guess you would say,” Halterman said. “If somebody were to come to me and say they hadn’t been there … I’m less likely to engage in services. I don’t care about all the letters behind your name. … I want to know that you have a bachelor’s in street science.”

Halterman said that experience makes the Navigators the perfect people to help.

The city has had a mental health court for years, but to qualify for that, a defendant must have been diagnosed with a mental health condition, Balch said.

However, Arizona law does not allow defendants who have a drug abuse issue to get diagnosed because it’s impossible to know which came first.

Halterman said she would estimate about 70 percent of the homeless people she deals with have mental health issues. Often, people experiencing homelessness are arrested for small crimes, such as shoplifting food or hygiene products.

Balch said the Navigators act as personal assistants, helping their clients navigate all the support systems available. They can help them get off of drugs, get diagnosed and care for any mental health issues and possibly get housing.

“The courts are really scary for people suffering through mental health or substance abuse, or something like that,” Halterman said. “Every time I even stepped on the property of a court building, I thought I was going to jail.”

Balch said Support Court may look like other courtrooms, but it will be a different experience for defendants.

Instead of being adversaries, the prosecution and defense lawyers will work together to try and get the defendant the help they need.

If the defendant chooses to avoid jail, they must complete the program. If they do, they hold a graduation ceremony and there’s no criminal record. If they fail to complete the program, then they can still be tried for their crime and could face jail time.

Balch said someone has to want to turn their life around, and Support Court. And if it takes a choice of do it or go to jail, then the city is fine with that.

But while the city is ready to offer all the support it can, it’s still up to the defendant to do the hard work to change their future. And if this works, it could lower the number of homeless, crimes, and court cases in Chandler. That would be a game changer.

“The reason this works is the Navigators,” Balch said.