How clearing outstanding warrants can change lives and reduce jail populations

By: Shelley Szambelan

Courts Interagency Collaboration Jail Populations October 9, 2017

Like many other courts nationwide, outstanding warrants present challenges in Spokane’s Municipal Court. Warrants contribute to court inefficiency, and they are costly from a monetary and social justice perspective.  As the second largest municipal court in the state of Washington in the biggest city between Minneapolis and Seattle, it is not surprising that the court has accumulated over 4,600 outstanding misdemeanor warrants from people failing to appear at court hearings. The court, however, is taking steps to address this backlog as part of the city’s efforts to safely reduce its jail population.

A warrant for arrest is issued when someone fails to appear for a court date. Once a warrant is issued, any contact the person has with law enforcement will result in an arrest on the outstanding warrant, even if that new contact is unrelated to any criminal conduct. For example, if a person is pulled over for speeding, she could be taken to jail for an outstanding warrant. Because of jail overcrowding, many people who are arrested on misdemeanor warrants are booked into jail and quickly released. Despite the fact that these defendants do not spend the night in jail, such cases are still costly for local taxpayers.  Each booking into jail increases the city’s proportionate share of the jail costs based on the jail’s average daily population. While the cost varies annually, taxpayers have paid about the same rate per day to incarcerate a misdemeanant as they would pay for him to stay in one of the finer local hotels.

To help address this issue, the core team from Spokane Municipal’s Community Court—which is a problem-solving court handling quality-of-life offenses such as trespass or pedestrian interference in the downtown area—recently held a “WarrantFest.” The event allowed people facing misdemeanor charges to have their warrants recalled—or canceled—and to renew participation in resolving their cases. To mitigate participants’ transportation challenges, the team—a judge, prosecutor, public defender, and court clerk—visited multiple locations in the city where many people who are homeless and vulnerable traditionally congregate:  a large, downtown homeless shelter; the regional bus and train station; and the hub for the city’s bus system.  In order for a location to serve as a WarrantFest site, all that was needed was internet access and chairs or benches for individuals to sit. Because Spokane’s Municipal Court uses an electronic case management system, the team was able to address all cases our court handles and set new court dates for participants within a week.

While the warrant backlog wasn’t eliminated that day, the event had a significant impact on those who participated.  Take, for example, the young woman that arrived at the WarrantFest’s “court” with her nine-month-old baby in a stroller. She has lived in desperate fear of getting arrested on an outstanding theft warrant from five years earlier and going to jail. Over the past few years, the young mother had completely changed her life and wanted to address her past mistake, but she was terrified to go to jail without anyone to care for her baby.  At the event, she was able to reconnect with an attorney to address her old shoplifting charge.

Another example involved a man who had, at one point, appeared frequently in criminal court on minor charges, in large part because of substance abuse and mental illness issues. However, he had not been seen at court for quite some time, which led him to have a warrant out for his arrest. He set a new court date at WarrantFest, and when he appeared at the new court date a week later, he was sober, following his prescribed medication regime, and employed. Like the young mother, he had made significant positive changes in his life. After reconnecting with his attorney, he is in the process of finishing what he needed to do in order to be held accountable—all without going to jail and losing his job and support system.

Just one day afforded opportunities for many other success stories like these. Tracking data is important for our team, and from the electronic case management system we found that very few people whose warrants were recalled at WarrantFest failed to appear at their next court hearing. The court plans to continue the success of WarrantFest, with some modifications to expand opportunities to participate, which will likely increase the number of success stories. We also anticipate inviting additional courts to join in future efforts so that more warrants can be addressed. As we witnessed , giving people the opportunity to finally take  care of these cases—and simultaneously reducing the use of jail—is far more productive than having the warrants sit in drawers.