Baltimore, like Ferguson, Has a Warrant Problem
University of Maryland law school professor Doug Colbert is proposing amnesty for tens of thousands of people who have outstanding warrants for minor crimes, but Maryland’s judiciary branch is opposed despite widespread public support
TAYA GRAHAM, TRNN: This is Taya Graham reporting for the Real News Network in Baltimore City, Maryland. We’re outside the downtown district courthouse where tens of thousands of warrants are issued each year, primarily for nonviolent offenses. Critics say these warrants cause residents to live in constant fear of arrest, which is why they believe the system needs to change.
Baltimore City is a town heavily invested in law enforcement, and its physical symbols are easy to see. A massive prison complex located in the heart of the city, where Maryland governor Larry Hogan says he will invest $480 million to rebuild, and the sprawling law enforcement bureaucracy that includes a police department which nets more money than any city agency, including education.
It’s a form of governance by punishment that casts a wide net. A net that law school professor Doug Colbert says can be understood in part through numbers.
DOUG COLBERT: Like most cities in our country, and counties, Baltimore has a substantial number of people who fail to come to court and receive a warrant for their arrest. So in Baltimore, in the 20 years I’ve been here, we’re talking about between 40,000 and 60,000 people who really have to fear walking the streets of our city, or driving their car, or being stopped, because once they have a warrant they will be taken to central booking. And if they don’t have the bail money, they will spend at least 30 and usually 45 days in jail before they’re able to resolve their matter.
GRAHAM: Roughly 40,000 warrants for mostly nonviolent crimes create what Colbert says is a community-wide home detention.
COLBERT: Well, it’s like an underground population, you know, where people really can’t surface. They can’t join the public arena without risk of being arrested. And most of the people with warrants have been charged with nonviolent misdemeanor crimes.
GRAHAM: A paper trail that spreads personal misery and discourages political efficacy across the city.
COLBERT: So the warrant forgiveness project, which students from our clinical program and myself have presented to each of the principal players in the system, would allow people to voluntarily appear at the district court, receive a new court date. They would have to deal with their criminal matter, but the warrant would be vacated, so it no longer would place anyone in jeopardy of being arrested.
GRAHAM: And Baltimore is not alone. In communities of color across the country, tens of thousands of minor warrants are used as tools of surveillance and control. For example, in Brooklyn, New York, prosecutors tried to alleviate a backlog of nearly 250,000 warrants with little success.
STEPHEN JANIS, TRNN: All these warrants, all these court costs, it sounds like Ferguson to me, in a way, which had a warrant problem.
COLBERT: Well, it’s exactly modeled after Ferguson and St. Louis, and the same thing that Atlanta has done, the same thing that College Station, Texas has done. And you know, Ferguson was able to provide people with a, a coupon that entitled them to go to court and get a new date to come back. They didn’t have to appear before a judge. You see, and that’s how the Baltimore program has to work, too. Community, in particular the African-American community, and most people are fearful of appearing before a judge. Because while some judges may release you, another judge will hold you in bail.
And so by allowing people to come to court, to voluntarily appear before a clerk, and simply show, yes, I would like to take care of my criminal matter from two years ago, the clerk will then offer a new court date. And then when you come back to court the second time, that’s when you will appear before a judge. But your safety and your freedom will be assured.
GRAHAM: Which is why Colbert is proposing amnesty for non-violent offenders that allows them the easiest path towards resolution. And there is support for the proposal throughout the city. Police Commissioner Kevin Davis says he thinks the idea will clear the books of minor warrants, and allow the agency to focus on the most violent offenders.
KEVIN DAVIS: I’m for it. I was just having a conversation with a couple community members here, at this [sign] dedication for Kendal Fenwick. Anything we can do to help non-violent offenders return to the community and be a productive member. So I’m all for it. It’s a little bigger than the police department because the courts are involved, the sheriff’s department’s involved. But non-violent offenders have a place in our society, and I think we have to remove the barriers that all too often stand in the way for these folks to return to society in a productive way.
GRAHAM: Councilman Brandon Scott, vice chair of the council’s public safety committee, also thinks amnesty could free people from a legal burden that often inhibits job-seeking and education.
BRANDON SCOTT: We have to get out of making people live in fear. In principle I support it, too. Of course, the devil’s in the detail. We’ve had those big sessions where people will call us, who bring in the federal government, and who had a warrant. You would come in to go to some church, and you know, sign and do things like that. So we’ve done similar things, before. I’m all for it, as long as we’re doing it in the way that protects everyone, as long as we’re doing it in a way that we’re not making people, citizens and neighborhoods, more unsafe. I think that’s something we should look at, because we’re not talking about people that are robbing or shooting people. We’re talking about minor crimes.
GRAHAM: It’s an acute issue in a city where heavy-handed law enforcement has been the norm. Under the leadership of now-presidential candidate and then-mayor of Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley, the city arrested over 100,000 people each year for seven years. A policy called Zero Tolerance that critics say still has consequences today.
But even with widespread support, there remains a roadblock: the judiciary. Chief District Court Judge John P. Morrisey has spoken out publicly against the idea. In this editorial he says amnesty is not necessary. He did not return our emails or calls for comment. But Colbert notes that it’s precisely that part of law enforcement bureaucracy, the judiciary, which extracts the most damaging costs from those entangled in it; a perverse set of incentives he says reveals the destructive imperative which drives a system that has done little to make Baltimore a better, or safer, place to live.
COLBERT: And I think the biggest issue here now is to persuade the judges that this is really a win-win situation for our administration of justice.
GRAHAM: This is Taya Graham and Stephen Janis reporting for the Real News Network in Baltimore City, Maryland.
DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.