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'Kayak court' takes legal services down the Jordan River to people experiencing homelessness

Posted at 4:40 PM, Jul 16, 2021

SALT LAKE CITY — Judge Jeanne Robison is holding court on the Jordan River.

The Salt Lake City Justice Court judge kayaks down the river with a flotilla of prosecutors, defense attorneys and judicial assistants. Social workers on bicycles are up ahead meeting people who are camped out along the banks.

"We’re doing tandem teams, a water team and a team down the bike path," Judge Robison told FOX 13. "The first is the social workers."

The social workers and public defense attorneys make contact with people experiencing homelessness, asking if they want help. Then they tell them the judge is right up the river, willing to take care of their legal troubles. They've got tablet computers and can pull up a name, check for warrants and other charges and resolve it right on the river. Participation is completely voluntary.

"One homeless person can rack up hundreds of cases by virtue of having nowhere to be. If you don’t have a home and you have a beer? Then you have an open container of alcohol in public. If you don’t have a home and you don't have a place to use a restroom, then you have a public urination charge. If you don’t have a home and you’re using public or private property, you get a camping in public or a trespass charge," Judge Robison said.

The judge says she isn't there to have people jailed. Instead, as a de-facto courtroom, she can recall the warrant or settle the case. Her style isn't harsh punishment. Instead, Judge Robison says she believes in "appropriate punishment."

"We’re trying to resolve them in a way that moves them toward self-sufficiency," she said.

She has sentenced people to community service for a misdemeanor charge — working in a soup kitchen that gets them a food handler's permit, which can get them a job in the service industry.

"If the warrant is a barrier for them getting in housing or things of that nature, we can at least get the warrant recalled," the judge said.

The social workers are there to get people into treatment or provide them with resources right on the spot. Judge Robison says it is easier than trying to get people to come to her courtroom.

"For this population? Transportation can be an issue. Many of them have been trespassed from UTA for riding UTA without a fare, for instance," she said.

Kayak Court
Judge Jeanne Robison holds "kayak court" in the Jordan River on Friday, July 16, 2021.

The idea came about from Judge Robison's personal experiences kayaking down the Jordan River on weekends. She and a social worker friend would frequently see homeless camps. It got them talking about ways to provide better outreach.

"We jokingly kind of said, 'We need a kayak court!'" the judge said.

They managed to wrangle prosecutors, defense attorneys and social workers and get them to all agree to participate. Judge Robison said if she wasn't holding court on the river, she'd be in her courtroom taking care of a daily calendar of cases.

"The prosecutors, public defenders, private defense attorneys have been amazing," she said.

On Friday, the group went down the river and reached out to people they encountered. It was the third time they had done it.

Andrew Johnston, the director of homeless services and outreach for Mayor Erin Mendenhall's office, said it may be the first time such an approach has been tried by the judicial system in the state.

"When you go out and meet them where they’re at, they feel more comfortable, it helps them with the anxiety piece," he told FOX 13. "Being able to meet with the judge, at your camp, on the river, be reassured about some things that can be handled here and we can do it in a way that will be worth it for you to get back on your feet, that’s a huge deal for a lot of folks."

Johnston said the city fully supports the concept.

"It’s not easy to put this together and make it work and they’ve been so gracious and hospitable," he said.

Judge Robison said she plans to continue "kayak court" once a month until the weather gets too cold, then pick it back up next year.