Last week, St Louis mayor Francis Slay’s office announced that the city would waive more than 220,000 misdemeanor arrest warrants. I think Mayor Slay made a genuinely well-intentioned offer to help those with warrants take care of them in a way that avoids jail, and it’s great that this problem is highlighted and publicized.
There’s only one problem: the program is going to fail. It’s not the motivation, but rather the mechanics of the outreach that will be the cause of the program’s failure.
Slay’s decision was inextricably tied to Ferguson: “In light of Ferguson,” Mayor Slay’s Chief of Staff Jeff Rainford told the St Louis Post-Dispatch, “we were thinking of how we can be more fair.”
The program, which drops arrest warrants written before October 1 and issued mainly for minor offenses like traffic violations but not for DUI or violent crime, gives effectively a three-month amnesty to accused misdemeanants: if they contact the court before December 31, the warrants stay quashed. If not, they are reinstated.
The Plan in St Louis was immediately derided by left-wing groups as an, “awkward attempt” to “whitewash [the city’s] image” that would ultimately benefit only the city. The media think it’s a great idea. It’s apparent, though, that supporters and opponents of the plan exhibit a glaring lack of understanding of how complex is the arcane world of arrest warrants.
What the Data Tell Us
I’ve been studying the warrant backlog problem nearly full time for the past five years. The debate over misdemeanor warrants is a lot like the debate over gun control, or police militarization: there is a lot of opinion clustered at the edges of the continuum of “for” and “against”, and very little in the way of meaningful conversation about causes, effects and compromise.
As a sworn police officer — first a reserve patrol and warrant officer, and currently as a police investigator/detective — I have personally served hundreds of misdemeanor arrest warrants, and been part of teams that search for and apprehend felony fugitives on local and federal arrest warrants. As the co-founder of a company that makes technology that helps prioritize arrest warrants for law enforcement agencies, I have a rare view into correlated data from courts, local, regional and federal law enforcement and public records. The data tells the story of fugitives and the officers and agencies that seek them.
In my experience, based on personal observations and scientific analysis of official data, perhaps the most common reasons for warrant backlogs are:
· a failure to integrate systems between the court and the police;
· unfunded mandates on warrant officers and city marshals;
· reliance on paper processes; and
· reliance on officers acting as data analysts and research librarians as opposed to police.
In a city like Ferguson, a program of selective warrant forgiveness is worthy of consideration, since the process has become controversial and caught up in accusations of racial overtones. I, however, reject the racial motivation, and maintain strongly that Hanlon’s Razor (“Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”) applies here — we cops are stupid in the sense that our systems are antiquated, un-connected, un-correlated and highly inefficient to the point of stupidity.
Despite what you’ve seen on CSI or heard about from Ed Snowden, It is literally true that most of America’s 18,000 law enforcement agencies are running data systems with Clinton-era screens, fronting Reagan-era computers, connecting to Nixon-era networks. These backlogs exist, almost exclusively, because of inherent inefficiencies in the system, not to suppress a community or population.
Felony cases involving violence, drugs, organized crime and other serious crimes get the resources available: no one is going to use a wiretap or surveillance cameras to catch someone for speeding tickets.
[For an overview of how warrants are issued, and why they get backlogged throughout the United States, see my earlier article, The Backlog: Misdemeanor Arrest Warrants In The United States.]
What’s worse, contrary to the concerns about financial incentives in the process, arresting someone for speeding ticket warrants exacerbates the problem, by forcing the city to bear the costs of arrest, processing and jailing a non-violent and minor criminal — when all the costs are taken into account, it costs city taxpayers about $120 a day to jail someone on minor charges. Thus it would be helpful to locate and contact those more likely to pay than “sit out” their fines in jail, but law enforcement usually has few resources to determine which misdemeanor fugitives will “sit” in jail and which will pay their bills.
So Why Won’t it Work?
A large percentage of fugitives with backlogged arrest warrants are low-income people. Low-income people tend to be more transient than higher-income people, and as we have seen, the warrants are backlogged and therefore old.
Mayor Slay’s plan, according to the Post-Dispatch, is primarily to send postcards to the fugitives. In my experience, the average age of the addresses contained in the underlying charges is about two years. The data are clear: for a significant minority of misdemeanor warrant fugitives, just having your address listed in a court document means by definition that enough time has passed for that address to be no longer valid.
So age and accuracy of the contact data is one major factor in evaluating the program’s chances of success. History is another.
In 2014, when it ran another amnesty program, Ferguson still had 40,000 backlogged warrants; St Louis has more than 286,000.
In sociologist Alice Goffman’s book, On The Run: Fugitive Life In An American City, she chronicles her six years in a Philadelphia neighborhood heavily populated by criminals. Goffman points out an enormous level of suspicion in the fugitive community towards the cops and courts.
Goffman avers that, because cops in Philadelphia resort to tactics like lurking in hospital emergency rooms to catch fugitives applying for aid, those who have warrants do anything they can to avoid official contact. We’ve seen this even in Ferguson, with paltry turnout to an event that promised to lift warrants for a flat, $100. Hundreds of people turning out to address a backlog of thousands makes news, but doesn’t make a difference.
So sending postcards informing fugitives of what is effectively a three-month time-out in the arrest process, while highly laudable as a goal, will fail: of the few postcards that actually reach a fugitive, still fewer will be welcomed as an opportunity. Sure, the program allows people to check for warrants on the court website — but this is supposed to be an outreach.
This system is not intentionally prejudicial against poorer people. Poorer people get caught more often in the net, not because of their race or economic status, but because poorer people almost by definition have more interactions with government at all levels than wealthier people. Applications for and maintenance of local housing assistance, medical care, transportation vouchers, food stamps and other interactions mean more opportunities for cops to check them out, which means that most of the warrants that do ultimately get cleared get cleared through opportunistic happenstance, as opposed to an orderly program of backlog reduction.
Every city manager and court administrator I have ever discussed this with states they will try almost anything to avoid having their police officers drag in some fugitive who, while not technically indigent, can’t or won’t pay their fines and fees.
Personal responsibility plays a major role as well. As we have seen, society has no truck with folks who incur legitimate fines and fees for their misbehavior and then refuse to pay the price. Many fugitives I’ve run into with fines of more than $1500 simply decide that it is cheaper for them to “sit it out” than to pay — leaving the city and its law-abiding residents to foot the bill.
I was once called to the station to accept the surrender of a man who was wearing sweat-pants and flip-flops, carrying a toothbrush and a stack of magazines. He told me he was starting a new job, and wanted to sit-out his warrants in order to have a clean slate. He owed about $2500 to the city, so the cost of his behavior to city taxpayers, who received the menace of his behavior and no benefit for their money, would ultimately be in excess of $5,000.
Guys like that are a big part of the problem, and we all pay for it. But guys like that just don’t make the news. Arbitrarily waiving his warrants won’t stop the behavior that led to them, it will encourage it.
A better plan would be to require vendors of government technology to interoperate on behalf of their customers; to require that court, corrections and police systems integrate to enable data sharing; and that government technology vendors use open data formats. These steps, in connection with open data laws, would reduce backlogs by speeding the time necessary to find fugitives before the fines and fees compound to become an insurmountable obstacle.
Selective forgiveness is another method supported by better technology integration and more open data. Forgiveness is currently done arbitrarily — all warrants opened before a certain date, for example. That’s just silly, and entirely caused by a lack of granular data control. Technology can make it possible for city attorneys and district attorneys to, for example, look at dismissal of warrants by those who have died, or are indigent, or who have left the area.
Here’s the best part of this scenario, not for the courts, or the police departments, but for the communities themselves. Open data and technical integration help the community gain critical transparency into processes that are currently “black-box”. This transparency builds trust, by allowing the community to see how decisions about arrests and warrants are made, and bringing to light abuses of power, or of the system.
If an officer is abusing his authority or access to arrest warrant data, I, like you, want that officer to lose his badge and, if warranted, to face charges. Open data and technical integration are the only ways to support this goal.
Better integration and open data also keeps fines lower, helps the communities and actually helps the fugitives. It also helps the officers stay safer by providing critical safety information.
The program in Ferguson is likely to fail, but not because its “heart isn’t in the right place”. It will fail for utterly mundane technical and operational reasons, and after it has ended, the city will face a fresh round of questions about “what went wrong”.
Open data and technical integration, not blanket and arbitrary forgiveness programs, are the way to break this vicious cycle.