Thompson moves to let folks Begin Again

Brian Josephs | 6/25/2015, 10:09 a.m.
Emmanuel Baptist Church, located a block away from Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute, was a place of hope for the thousands who ...
Ken Thompson

Emmanuel Baptist Church, located a block away from Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute, was a place of hope for the thousands who lined up outside last Friday and Saturday. This wasn’t just an evangelical sort of hope.

The lines had people from Brooklyn to the Bronx waiting to clear bench warrants. Begin Again, a community initiative backed by Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson’s office, was at the church to help.

Begin Again focuses on using non-confrontational methods to solve bench warrants that rose from unanswered summons. Thompson was thinking about such an initiative when he was campaigning in 2013.

“During Father’s Day weekend, over 1,000 people came out to the Begin Again initiative held at Emmanuel Baptist Church in Clinton Hill to get their outstanding arrest warrants vacated,” Thompson told the AmNews. “It was quite a sight to see so many people who got summonses for riding their bikes on the sidewalk or walking their dogs without a leash or for other low-level offenses get the burden of open warrants lifted off their shoulders, begin again and move on with their lives. I will take Begin Again to East New York next and then to other parts of Brooklyn to help many others clear up their outstanding summonses and warrants.”

Last weekend was Begin Again’s first event, where they reviewed each participant’s case, one by one.

The people who stood in line outside of the church accounted for only a fraction of the outstanding arrest warrants in New York City. Thompson said there are 1.2 million such warrants in New York City. Most are over a year old, and some are older than a decade. Some people simply can’t make it to the lower Manhattan office to settle the issue for a variety of reasons. Others simply forget or don’t know they have an outstanding warrant. Regardless of the reason, the citizens still suffer the consequences.

“In Brooklyn alone, tens of thousands of people have such warrants, which can impede their ability to get a job, apply for citizenship or obtain public housing, thereby eroding their futures and, by extension, weakening a community,” Thompson said.

Begin Again isn’t only notable for how it directly addresses the issue. The first weekend brought together the efforts of community bodies and members to efficient effect. Begin Again involved the efforts of community leaders, the Office of Court Administration, the Legal Aid Society and church members.

Although the line stretched around the block, Press Secretary Charisma L. Troiano said that everybody who waited got a chance to meet with a legal aid attorney, who individually interviewed them about any outstanding summonses. The temporary clients then waited in a sanctuary to be called again to meet with a legal aid attorney in front of a judge to adjudicate the warrant. With this process, a years-long warrant was settled within a few hours. It’s a smoother process compared with the more uncomfortable lower Manhattan hearing.

“Let’s say you had a summons for public urination and the reason is that you had a prostate issue. Now because there’s no privacy or room to consult with your attorney, you mention this to your attorney in front of an entire courtroom when you’re going to see the judge. You make this public announcement,” Troiano said. “It’s very much a question about due process.”

Begin Again also featured various other forms of assistance through a resource fair. Community organizations set up tents and tables outside of the church, and they offered services such as public housing information, job training and health care provisions. The addition makes Begin Again more of a social service than strictly a legal one.

“Once you get this warrant off of your background, now what? Now you can begin again and apply for public housing,” Troiano said. “You can sit down and talk to someone: ‘Now I can look for a job.’”