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Justice With a Side Order of Help

Times Staff Writer

An Orange County judge plans to open an outreach court to connect the homeless with mental health services, job training and legal counsel under one roof in hopes of saving money and reducing criminal recidivism.

“We’ve been filling our prisons with the mentally ill, and that’s not working. This is a compassionate alternative,” said Superior Court Judge Wendy Lindley, who presides over a special weekly drug court, weekly court sessions for those with multiple disorders, and twice-monthly homeless-court sessions.

The full-time outreach court would be established at 909 Main St. in Santa Ana, a former Buffums department store. It would have offices with representatives for social services, housing, transportation, the public defender’s office, legal aid, employment assessment and job training programs, psychiatrists, drug and alcohol counseling and mental health agencies.

Lindley said most of the agencies involved had agreed to provide staffers for the facility upon its scheduled opening in mid- to late 2006. But she still seeks funding to modify the building.

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Lindley and Sheriff Michael S. Carona said they weren’t aware of another program as comprehensive as the planned outreach court.

Carona said the facility would serve as a pilot program that could be duplicated elsewhere in the county.

“The outreach court will save a lot of money because there’ll be less people sitting in my jail,” the sheriff said. “It’ll save lives because it motivates people to get their lives turned around. It’s rehabilitation versus strict punishment.”

Lindley also expects an expanded homeless court to serve 100 defendants a month, as opposed to the average of 40 a month who have gone through the program since its inception a year ago. Homeless court is for those who have received “quality of life” citations, such as being vagrant or drunk and disorderly.

Lindley and Carona announced the outreach court before a shortened homeless-court session Wednesday at the Orange County Rescue Mission in Santa Ana.

Lindley dismissed tickets or vacated fines for four people and asked the other four to return in April. Half the people who appeared before the court were military veterans, and three were mentally ill, according to the public defender’s office.

Michael Alexander, a former Marine who had more than $3,000 in fines vacated by Lindley, was laid off from his job in March 2004 and found himself on the street. He said the outreach court would be valuable to others in his position.

The fines have been “a big burden for me,” Alexander said. “I’m lucky and blessed to be in this court.”

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