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  January 6, 2017

New Program Offers Partial Roll-Back of Baltimore's Warrant-Industrial Complex

Criminal justice leaders say thousands of warrants for minor non-violent crimes clogging the system can be vacated if people take advantage of program to seek new trial
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MARILYN MOSBY: Since I've taken office, I've always said that we needed to take a holistic approach, to not just prosecution, but a holistic approach to public safety in Baltimore City. This is that holistic approach.

TAYA GRAHAM: This is Taya Graham... reporting for the Real News Network in Baltimore City, Maryland.

City States Attorney, Marilyn Mosby, Police Commissioner, Kevin Davis and law professor, Doug Coburn of the University of Maryland, all gathered here today in order to discuss Failure to Appear Arrest warrants. They have a program to give people a second chance. To give low-level misdemeanor, non-violent, offenders an opportunity to vacate their warrant, without impacting their lives, their jobs or their families.

I'm here with Real News reporter, Stephen Janis, to discuss the press conference.

So, Stephen, can you tell me a little bit about the second chance program for Failure to Appear warrants?

STEPHEN JANIS: Yeah, well, this is a program that will run for three weeks in January that was sort of collaboration between all the agencies you just mentioned. Which is the State's Attorney's office, University of Maryland and the Police Department. That allow people who have FTAs, known as Failure to Appear, where they didn't show up for, let's say, a minor traffic problem or a minor misdemeanor, you know, second-degree assault, or--

TAYA GRAHAM: A low-level theft.

STEPHEN JANIS: Low-level offence, non-violent. Non-violent -- actually wouldn't be a second-degree assault -- non-violent offence. And they have a warrant over their head. And, you know, as the police commissioner, and as Doug Coburn said, there are tens of thousands of these warrants, that are basically making it impossible for people to live their lives. Because at any moment they feel like they can be arrested.

MAN: They are people who have missed their court dates, and who have a Failure to Appear warrant. Now have the opportunity to, of removing those warrants, getting a new trial date and facing their misdemeanor, non-violent, criminal charges. All of the defendants share something in common. They're very fearful that by coming to court they will receive a bail that they cannot afford, a money bail. And then they will spend the next 30 to 45 days in jail.

STEPHEN JANIS: So, what this program allows them to do is, to come into the court and meet with the clerk of the court and get their trial re-scheduled. So, in other words, they don't have to worry about a warrant. The warrant will be vacated, the warrant will be quashed and we will end up having to just have a new court date. And as Marilyn Mosby mentioned, the Prosecutor's office might say, "Hey, this isn't even worth pursuing. We'll dismiss this out of hand."

MARILYN MOSBY: This program is a matter of judicial economy. And it's a system that will not only break down those barriers of distrust, but will rid the system of old FTA warrants for minor, non-violent, and I repeat, non-violent misdemeanor offences. Which allows all of us, and when I say "all of us", I mean the police department, I mean the sheriff's department, I mean the state's attorney's office, the public defenders.

It allows all of us to be able to focus on those offenders in the city that need to be off our streets. It gives an opportunity for folks to no longer have this sort of barrier, that's burdening them, and not coming forward.

TAYA GRAHAM: So, there are 35,000 open warrants, and around 6,800 of them are for these misdemeanor low ... offences. It seems this affects low-income people in particular. Could you explain how this disproportionately impacts people who can't afford bail?

STEPHEN JANIS: Well, because a lot of the criminal justice system, and efforts and money resources are focused on very specific parts of Baltimore. For example, the places... we looked in the Justice Department for this and, you know, 44% of Quality of Life arrests, you know, the zero tolerant arrests were focused in one section of Baltimore City.

Predominantly African American, predominantly for west Baltimore, east Baltimore, because of that, the majority of the people who are dealing with these outstanding warrants are poor. Are African American. Are in tenuous economic positions, where a warrant can literally, sort of, thrust them into even worse circumstances.

TAYA GRAHAM: So, there are obviously benefits to low-income residents, people of color. But are there any benefits for the police department?

STEPHEN JANIS: Well, it's interesting, both the police commissioner and the States Attorney, Marilyn Mosby, talked about that. They talked about some of the aspects of this that would help, sort of clear the books, and pave the way to save money actually, to make this a more efficacious justice system. Let's listen to what they had to say.

MARILYN MOSBY: We appreciate the efforts, and to alleviate the burden that's carried out by many members of our community. For outstanding FTA warrants, freeing them to seek housing opportunities, freeing them to seek job opportunities. That's the holistic approach that we should all be taking, when it comes to non-violent misdemeanor offences.

MAN: Most of the warrants that would be recognized in this program, go unserved until there is an interaction between a patrol officer, and the person who possesses the warrant. If they don't ever have an interaction with the police, they may live their entire lives in fear of being arrested for a non-violent offence that they missed court for.

This will allow them the opportunity to have a safe avenue to come to court. Because if they enroll in the program and get their warrant recalled, they will have a new trial date, and can then function in society without fear of that police encounter that will lead to their arrest.

TAYA GRAHAM: Now, originally, I've heard this program referred to as a Warrant Forgiveness program, but now City State's Attorney, Marilyn Mosby, seeks to emphasize that this was a second chance program, an FTA second chance, #FTA2. Why aren't they calling it Warrant Forgiveness anymore?

STEPHEN JANIS: Well, I think there's a great fear that... partly 'cause it's the responsibility of the media. That if someone has a warrant, and the warrant is forgiven, and they go out and do something. Kill somebody, rob a bank, whatever, that the justice system is responsible, that that person should be incarcerated forever. So, I think one of the reasons that they do that is for that reason.

But also, it's truly not a warrant of forgiveness. You're still going to have to go to court, and it's going to be up to the State's Attorney and the judge whether or not to dismiss it, or what happens. I mean, technically you could go and re-schedule a court appearance and end up losing your case, and end up having to serve time, or do whatever. So, really it's more accurate to say this is a second chance, or a warrant vacate program, rather than a warrant forgiveness. And that was the important distinction. Let's hear what Marilyn Mosby had to say about that.

MARILYN MOSBY: Because I think it's very clear, it's not a forgiveness program. This is not something in which the defendants are coming, and the case goes away. These are where you have outstanding warrants and are given a second opportunity to say to a judge, "Hey, I failed to appear on this occasion, give me my day in court." It's a process in which the prosecutors will be able to look at the case and see if the case is even salvageable. If it's not then, yeah, we can extend and utilize our resources in order to get rid of the case.

But this is, I think, maximizing the resources, again, so that we can really utilize our resources to focus on the worst of the worst. And not have the non-violent offenders, and have this burden that's on them, in the streets when they come in contact with police, and to have this fear. We have to be able to break down those barriers of distrust. So, it's not forgiveness. You're still going to have your day in court.

It's a second opportunity, a second chance to clear this up and to get your pursuit and have your day in court and that pursuit of justice.

TAYA GRAHAM: So, essentially people will still have to have their day in court.

STEPHEN JANIS: Yeah, I mean, Police Commissioner, Kevin Davis, we talked to him and he was very firm about that. He said, he has a really good explanation of why this -- the important fact is -- what he said about this is very interesting; 'cause it relates to many of the cases we've seen with violent police encounters. Started with minor things, like the case in, Walter Scott, in South Carolina. He had a minor warrant for child support and he ended up dead. So, let's hear what Commissioner Davis had to say about that.

KEVIN DAVIS: Well, Steven, the Warrant Apprehension Task Force goes after violent offenders every day. The offenders that we're talking about, that would be eligible to participate in this program, are non-violent offenders, who we frankly, don't look for actively. But they come into contact with police officers. On traffic stops, calls for service, and other chance encounters. And I've been doing this job for 25 years and on countless times, personally, I've had someone run from me on foot, or flee in a car, only to discover when I caught up with him, that he was running because he didn't want to face the FTA warrant that he had.

And it's one of those, "Really? You did all that for that?" So, I think this is just an effort to recognize those non-violent offenders, who we are not actively searching for. Because our resources dictate that we have to concentrate on violent offenders in the city. That's where the city wants us to be. That's where we are. So, I think really, the savings, and it's tough to put a monetary value on anything, but the value in this is trust with the community. And that trust is priceless in my opinion.

TAYA GRAHAM: This is Taya Graham and Stephen Janis reporting for The Real News Network in Baltimore City, Maryland.




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