In 2015 the ACLU released a study on low-level arrests in Minneapolis. We looked at arrest data from a 33-month period and found that one of the most common reasons for arrests was an outstanding warrant.
Currently, there are almost 10,000 active misdemeanor warrants in Hennepin County. Most of these warrants are issued for offenses like driving without a license, disorderly conduct, loitering, driving without insurance, etc. If you can’t pay your fine and miss your court date a bench warrant will be issued for failure to appear. Arresting an individual because they couldn’t afford to pay for insurance and couldn’t pay the fine just means more collateral consequences for the individual. Now they are spending time in jail, potentially missing work, and having to pay for childcare, which makes it even more unlikely they can get the funds to pay for insurance and take care of the offense. Active warrants also make it harder to get a job, secure housing and move forward in general. Because of institutional racism in our government systems, there are also huge racial disparities; Black and Native people are 8 times more likely to be arrested, which means the negative impact on communities of color for all of these arrests is astronomical.
After we released the report in 2015, our friends at the NAACP Minneapolis came up with the idea of a warrant forgiveness day. We needed a creative solution like warrant forgiveness because an individual can’t just walk into a courthouse and expect to resolve a warrant without getting arrested. Together, the NAACP MPLS & the ACLU-MN approached Hennepin County Judges, the Minneapolis City Attorney, and the Hennepin County Public Defender’s office to float the idea of a day to peacefully resolve warrants. We also received grant funding from the United Way to make this event possible. After months of preparation and planning, we came together to host a Warrant Forgiveness Day on Saturday, May 20.
When planning this event, the ACLU & NAACP wanted to make the event as friendly and welcoming as possible. Typical experiences with the criminal justice can be fraught with anxiety, fear, or distrust. When we began promoting the event and talking to people in the community we felt that fear. People thought the event would be a trap to get arrested and didn’t believe that the courts would be willing to do something like this. We spoke out, went on the radio, and did as much as we could to dispel those fears. The event was hosted in the community and not a courthouse to make it as comfortable as possible for people. There were minimal law enforcement presence and a lot of friendly ACLU & NAACP volunteers.
To resolve most of their offenses people could do community service hours in the same building, so when they walked out they could be done with everything. There were also people there from Driver and Vehicle Services and expungement clinics to help people take care of other issues that could prevent them from moving forward. We wanted it to be a one-stop shop.
On the morning of the event, we had volunteers brave the rain to stand out front and welcome people. We actually saw people hiding in the bushes waiting to see if people were being arrested. Even inside the building people nervously looked in the room where court was happening to see if people were getting arrested.
However, the faces on people leaving the event were 100% different. When people left they were smiling and relieved.
During the day, a number of people took the time to write letters about what this experience meant to them. They are truly touching. Read a few that are attached: Warrant Forgiveness Day 2017 Participant Letter (1), Warrant Forgiveness Day 2017 Participant Letter (2), Warrant Forgiveness Day 2017 Participant Letter (3). Here is an excerpt from one: “This is probably the most beneficial thing that has happened to me this year. I don’t have to wonder anymore. Worry about if I'll be separated from my child is GONE!! I’m not a career criminal. I am a single mother who made a mistake and now I’m free to move forward fearlessly.”
On this one day, over 230 cases were resolved. That is great news for everyone involved-- the individuals, the courts, law enforcement, and the larger community. While this one event can’t change all of the problems in our criminal justice system it is a great start.
It was wonderful to see all of the complicated parts of the court system, the judges, the prosecutors, the public defenders, and the administrators come together and be in the community for this event. Thank you to everyone at the Fourth Judicial District Court who made this happen.
Our hope at the ACLU (and NAACP) is that this is the first of many warrant forgiveness days.