Cincinnati Police officers were due to sweep a homeless camp on the riverfront, arguing the responsibility to guard public safety. But local attorney Jennifer Kinsley counter-argued First Amendment protections and won a restraining order, resulting in a conversation about how to approach homeless shelters here and across the U.S.
“I got this random call from this lady,” says Georgine Getty, then-executive director of the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless. “She said, ‘I think I can help you.’ And it turns out she’s an attorney with Sirkin Pinales & Schwartz, and she shows up with a restraining order against the city of Cincinnati five minutes before the police were supposed to sweep the camp … because she saw us on the news.”
Getty was with Don Henry, a homeless man.
“I asked Don, ‘Do you want me to ask her if she can try and stop this?’ ” Getty recalls. “And he was like, ‘Yeah, sure. I don’t particularly want to go to jail.’ Not only did she have the sheer balls to sue the city for someone she hadn’t even met — she just saw him on TV — she then stuck with him as his friend until the day he died years later. That’s just how she is.”
The restraining order and subsequent settlement of a lawsuit resulted in an unprecedented procedure for dealing with temporary shelters set up by homeless people on public property.
“We adopted a protocol that may not have preserved the right of people to publicly camp out on public property forever and ever and ever but did engage the existing social services network with police forces in a way that had never happened before,” Kinsley says. “This protocol is still in effect, and we provided it to the National Coalition (for the) Homeless and they track legal cases all around the country. This has become the leading settlement that has been used in many other cities.”
Kinsley did all of the work for free.
“It’s rewarding,” she says. “When you can take somebody like Don Henry — a guy with no money to his name, no possessions, no degrees or letters behind his name — and through the legal system you show him that by taking a stand against something that’s wrong can make a difference for hundreds of other people … it’s priceless.”
Another vulnerable population Kinsley has championed is juvenile offenders. Partnering with the Children’s Law Center, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Ohio Justice and Policy Center, she sued the Ohio Department of Youth Services over conditions in juvenile prisons across the state. Physical, sexual and verbal abuse was rampant, according to Kinsley.
“We have entered into a settlement that entirely reforms the criminal justice system for kids in Ohio,” she says. “At the time that we pursued the settlement, we were striking when we thought we had the best chance. There were things that we got out of the settlement that we wouldn’t have been able to get out of court. For example, the court can order the Department of Youth Services to adopt a remedial plan to fix the constitutional violations, but the court can’t order the specifics of that plan.
“The de-population efforts, the reforms to the release authority, the focus — which is slow in coming — on regionalization as opposed to these big mega-prisons for kids, all of those things would not have happened had we not pursued litigation.”
Having political support at the state level was also key, Kinsley says. With a two-year report due soon, she’s looking forward to the next stage of reform.
In the meantime, she’s challenging several established county institutions.
Kinsley has sued Hamilton County Municipal Court and Sheriff Simon Leis over the use of electronic monitoring units for people released on bond. Without holding hearings, the county has been revoking the bonds of people who allegedly violate the monitoring rules.
“These people just get arrested and they wind up sitting in jail for a long time without any recourse and without any hearings,” Kinsley says.
If a signal on the bracelet shows a defendant isn’t inside her home, the sheriff’s office takes an affidavit to a judge, the judge revokes the bond and the person is arrested and locked up in the Justice Center — all without the defendant or her attorney present and with no opportunity to challenge the accusation. Evidence shows the county has been doing this for decades, Kinsley says.
“We’re suing to stop the policy, which would, in effect, make Hamilton County have hearings for these people,” she says. “That’s the way it works in federal court. … They file a motion, the person is brought to court and there’s a hearing before a judge where they can dispute the allegations because, let’s face it, people are only human and the government can be wrong.”
Taking on powerful politicians and elected officials doesn’t faze Kinsley. She says her role is essential to bringing about needed reforms.
“Nobody’s above the law,” she says. “Even though they think they are, they aren’t. I do think every little bit we’re chipping away we are making a difference. I think the cumulative effect over time will make things better. We’re not going to fix the problem overnight, and we’re not going to fix it with one case and one lawsuit.
“I believe in individual rights and I believe in standing up for people who don’t otherwise have a voice in the system. I wouldn’t be where I’m at if there weren’t people who stood up for me when I didn’t have a voice. … It’s my hope that I’ll be inspiring other people to make a positive difference as well.”