It only took a few minutes in front of a judge in February and suddenly Chris Crone had an option for dealing with thousands of dollars in unpaid fines.
The fines had piled up over the years and, along with other bills and debts, threatened to overwhelm him.
Crone, 49, has been homeless on and off for most of his life. Though he hasn’t had any new tickets from police in several years, he avoided dealing with outstanding charges, allowing fines for small-time nuisance offenses like littering or trespassing to accumulate.
Crone had long worried about this exact moment — the moment he finally showed up for court and would be vulnerable in front of a judge.
After a brief consultation with Crone and Astoria Police Officer Kenny Hansen, who attended to represent and support Crone, Municipal Court Judge Kris Kaino agreed to accept 40 hours of volunteer work at local nonprofits in lieu of the roughly $3,000 in fines Crone owed.
“The city of Astoria doesn’t necessarily have an interest in getting rich off the poor people of Astoria,” Kaino told Crone.
If the work satisfies Astoria police, Kaino said, it satisfies the court.
“Not bad,” Crone said as he stood outside City Hall later. “That went a lot better than I thought it would.”
Crone is a bit of anomaly, said Police Chief Geoff Spalding, but his situation prompted Mayor Bruce Jones’ homelessness solutions task force earlier this year to begin developing a fine forgiveness program.
The task force hopes to help homeless people who struggle to pay fines for small-time offenses and whose debts compound when they don’t show up for court.
While certain problem behaviors need to be addressed, Spalding has said officers aren’t interested in ticketing the homeless for every infraction. Tickets don’t solve the underlying problems, he said, and only put more stress on people in difficult situations.
Mental health and other issues may make it hard for some people to show up for a court hearing, but, more often, they don’t show up because they know they can’t pay fines, advocates say.
Kaino is often willing to reduce or even forego fining people at Municipal Court if he knows they are homeless or have little, if any, financial means.
But when people don’t show up, the court can’t know their situation and has few options but to issue a failure to appear and keep adding fines to the underlying ticket.
For Crone, it long felt wiser to avoid court hearings. After all, who knows what will happen if you put yourself at the mercy of the judge.
There are several models across the country for fine forgiveness or clean-slate programs. There are special courts that try to ease the burden of fines and fees for infractions that the homeless are often ticketed for, so-called quality-of-life crimes like urinating in public, consuming alcohol in public, trespassing or camping in parks.
A subcommittee appointed by the homelessness task force is still trying to figure out exactly how such a program would work on the North Coast. These programs can come with significant costs to cities. Subcommittee members are already seeing how difficult it could be to try to address problems faced by the homeless and still be fair to everyone.
After all, even people who have housing may struggle to pay court fines, said Jonah Dart-McLean, the city’s parks maintenance supervisor, who serves on the subcommittee.
“We’re trying to figure out what the solutions are so we’re not excluding people who are maybe on the fringe of being homeless,” he said.
The subcommittee is moving slowly, but hopes to have an update for the task force at a meeting in April.
The benefits of this kind of program are clear, they say.
It has the potential to not only give people more options to deal with fines, but to also give them a path forward, said Alan Evans, the executive director for Helping Hands, a nonprofit that offers sobriety and re-entry programs to the homeless.
Community service allows people to give back and integrate with their community in a healthy way, said Evans, who serves on the subcommittee.
Court records and debt are often huge barriers for the homeless as they try to regain stability.
“Part of their re-entry into society is to take care of those fines,” Evans said. “Now, when you’re attempting to get your life back in order and back to a place where you may be able to sustain affordable housing in our community, a $500 or $750 fine hanging over your head could be the difference between you getting to the point where you can sustain yourself or not.”
He believes many people will leap at the opportunity to work off their fines.
Hansen, the police department’s homeless liaison officer, has identified several homeless people he thinks would benefit from fine foregiveness. Like Crone, they possess a key trait: They are ready to do the work to better their situations.
Hansen believes fine forgiveness works well for this type of person. Crone, he said, “has the will to take care of things to be a responsible citizen.”
The right direction
A month after his court hearing, Crone sat tucked in a corner at the Astoria Downtown Market on Commercial Street. Sam McDaniel, the market’s owner, lets Crone and several others who are homeless or recently homeless and struggling to stay sober hang out in the store.
“This is my little safety zone,” Crone said.
For Crone, the market is a place to get away from habits, temptations and the myriad issues he may encounter on the streets. He sometimes rests there before heading off to a work shift elsewhere.
He is working with Hansen to patch together volunteer hours with several nonprofits, but has not made much of a dent in his required 40 hours.
Nor does the Municipal Court’s leniency in February mark the end of his financial struggles.
He estimates he owes well over $100,000 in unpaid hospital bills and court fines that have accumulated and long since gone to collection agencies here and in other states. His credit is shot. He works at odd jobs under the table, worried that an on-the-books job would bring collection agencies down on his head.
“It’s frustrating,” Crone said. “A lot of it’s in collections. Just the stuff I had here — that doesn’t even touch the beginning of it all.”
But, he said, it is a big step in the right direction.