Hillsborough County plans to crack down on chronic homelessness with new court system

TAMPA, Fla. - A Hillsborough County judge is tired of throwing the same people in jail, over and over again.

Wednesday, he had a chance to send some of the repeat offenders somewhere else.

"If you want to get off the street, they're going to try to help you," Judge Dominguez told the men and women in his courtroom.

Dominguez is an integral piece to addressing the puzzle of chronic homelessness in Hillsborough County.

On the second Wednesday of every month, he will hear cases of minor ordinance offenses ranging from panhandling to public consumption of alcohol.

Instead of jail time or a fine, offenders can choose social services like mental health counseling through the Homeless Coalition.

If they complete the program with no legal violations in 60 days, the original charge is wiped from their criminal record.

"How's it going to work? We'll see," Judge Dominguez said.

"The alternative is what? Put them in jail? We've done that. You put them in jail. They get out of jail. They're back in jail."

First, they have to show up to court. This first day, Judge Dominguez's courtroom was dotted with empty benches.

Of the ones who did stand before him, four of the five refused help.

"He doesn't wish to participate in any services," one of the public defenders said.

However, one of the five chose differently.

"I don't give up, but I do mess up. That's why I'm here," explained Greg Martaniuk.

"I don't know anything about this program. So, I'm going to chose to find out."

Martaniuk is Judge Dominguez's target audience, someone who says he wants to contribute to society, but has a hard time finding and keeping a job.

"If they want to take advantage of an opportunity to maybe get off the street, finally we have all of the support," Judge Dominguez said.

City leaders hope the new municipal court docket will streamline the process of dealing with repeat code violators, including landlord infractions like the blighted properties Mayor Bob Buckhorn's crackdown recently focused on cleaning up.

For Martaniuk, whose life fits into a single black sack, it's a chance to believe he's more than just the heavy weight he carries on his back.

"If you're told enough who you are, then I guess that's what you are," he said. "

And I can help the people who are on the streets, my friends, to say, 'Hey, it's really not that bad. Go check it out.'"

 

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