At present, the city has roughly 1 million open summons warrants. These outstanding warrants for minor offenses are eroding the public’s trust in the fairness and effectiveness of our system of justice. As the city grapples with its broken summons system as a whole, I urge you to address the warrant crisis in particular by replicating in all the boroughs Brooklyn’s Begin Again community-based initiative—a thoughtful, measured and proven way to deal with this crisis head on. We simply cannot continue down this path any longer.
This past Father’s Day weekend, over 1,000 people, from all five boroughs, came to a church in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, to take responsibility for, and to clear, their open “failure to appear” summons warrants. At times, the line stretched down the block. My office, in partnership with the New York City Police Department, the Office of Court Administration and the Legal Aid Society, was able to clear nearly 700 such warrants over the two-day period—the most summons warrants ever cleared in Brooklyn during a similar time frame. Clergy, elected officials and other community leaders collaborated with us to achieve this impressive result.
However, Brooklyn cannot tackle this problem alone. Even with our unprecedented success on this front, we were able to clear just a small fraction (less than 1 percent) of the city’s open summons warrants. Imagine, however, the progress that could be made if Brooklyn’s Begin Again initiative were replicated in multiple locations in each borough throughout New York City.
Even as Brooklyn has taken this progressive step toward addressing these outstanding warrants, New York City as a whole is behind the times and falls short of several other municipalities in this effort. Recognizing that an old open warrant for a low-level offense can have a disproportionate and unintended adverse impact on both the individual and the police, not to mention community-police relations, several jurisdictions nationwide have implemented warrant amnesty programs to address a concern over these warrants. For example, Atlanta offers a warrant amnesty period as a “goodwill gesture.” In Tulsa, Okla., the authorities have set up five locations over a five-day period for warrant resolution. Even Texas has taken action toward establishing a statewide warrant resolution program.
The time is now for New York City—a city that has always been a national leader in criminal justice reform—to step up and take action to resolve the pressing problem of open summons warrants that unnecessarily bog down our criminal justice system and waste resources.
The staggering number of these warrants can be traced to a number of factors. Among those factors appears to be a practice of automatically issuing a bench warrant on the first instance of a missed court appearance—regardless of any reason that the individual might have had for his or her absence. Once the court has ordered the warrant, any future contact by the individual with law enforcement, even for a minor violation, will result in handcuffs, a trip to the precinct and possibly a night or weekend in jail. Because this outcome is so often disproportionate to the underlying low-level quality-of-life offense, it unnecessarily but invariably escalates tension between the individual and the police. Additionally, bystanders, baffled by the police action they are witnessing, may simmer with suspicion and resentment, potentially exacerbating community distrust that hobbles law enforcement and, indeed, that can endanger our police officers.
Furthermore, the arrests made pursuant to such bench warrants inevitably divert our already very limited criminal justice resources away from the prosecution and adjudication of more serious offenses. An inordinate amount of time and staff at the police precinct, district attorney’s office and courthouse ends up being used to process these low-level, often quite old offenses, many of which are simply not prosecutable. Taxpayer money deserves to be better spent.
The failure to respond to this warrant crisis with a concrete and practical solution such as Begin Again threatens not only to drain our coffers, but also, and more importantly, to undermine our collective efforts to strengthen the ties between the community and police. I know that you recognize the gravity of the situation. Implementing Begin Again citywide would in fact complement your new neighborhood policing plan, “One City: Safe and Fair—Everywhere,” designed to involve the community in efforts to combat crime.
The Begin Again model is especially compelling. Because the proceedings take place in a community-based setting, such as a church or other house of worship or other community center, Begin Again reminds one and all that the “quality-of-life” offenses giving rise to the summonses are quintessentially offenses against the collective residents of a neighborhood. At the same time, the model demonstrates that the community, law enforcement and the justice system can and should all work together to address these quality-of-life offenses, and that all three are capable of showing understanding and even mercy to those willing to take responsibility for their actions. Additionally, because Begin Again includes a resource fair component, individuals who come to clear their warrants are provided with real, constructive help on a variety of matters—help that they would never receive at an extremely busy downtown courthouse.
If we bring the summons court directly to neighborhoods throughout the city—even if for just one Saturday in September—we have the chance to generate substantial good will between law enforcement and the community and increase the benefits of what NYPD Police Commissioner William Bratton has often referred to as the “peace dividend.” The documented success of the community justice center model—a model that we now have in Red Hook and which we seek to establish in Brownsville—demonstrates that the best way to address community quality-of-life offenses is through community-rooted solutions.
As Brooklyn’s district attorney, I urge you to help all New Yorkers who have outstanding summons warrants take an affirmative step toward peace of mind and compliance with the law. Let’s restore public confidence in our criminal justice system. Let’s Begin Again throughout the city.