Court program seeks to reduce active warrants in one fell swoop

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The legislative season at the State House is in full swing and buried amid controversial bills that would repeal the death penalty, further regulate the oil and gas industry and institute paid family leave, in an effort to reduce the number of people in jail for missing court dates. It’s estimated that 40-60 percent of people held in county jails around the state are there for failing to appear in court, and a bipartisan bill, now under consideration in the Colorado Senate, would require the state court administrator to implement a text reminder program at the district, county and municipal levels.

“Many offenders held in custody at the jail have a history of failing to appear for court dates,” says Boulder County District Attorney Michael Dougherty. “If we can improve the attendance rate through text reminders, we would likely see a reduction in the jail population as well as in the taxpayer dollars used to fund law enforcement’s efforts to locate people on warrant status.” 

The DA’s office is also taking it one step further, opening the Boulder Justice Center on Saturday, April 13, for anyone with an outstanding warrant on low-level crimes to come in, quash a warrant without fear of arrest and hopefully resolve their case. The City of Boulder has also signed on.

“Since court’s open Monday through Friday, during business hours, I would assume that we have people who are working and/or have kids and other responsibilities and can’t make it to the courthouse to clear the warrants, especially if they’re worried that if they go to the courthouse today, they might be in jail overnight,” Dougherty says. “If you’re struggling to make ends meet and you have a job and you have the choice between skipping a day at work and losing your job or skipping the court, a lot of people choose the [latter].”

He also hopes the Fresh Start warrant forgiveness program will draw immigrants who may not come to court in fear of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) being alerted through public court dockets. But this day there will be no dockets, and any eligible defendant with an outstanding warrant can come to the courthouse without fear of arrest.

“Hopefully [this will] make an impact on not only the number of outstanding warrants that we have but on the lives of the members of our community who are out there living with the the stress of having an active warrant and not knowing from day to day if they’re going to get arrested,” says Adrian Van Nice, the assistant district attorney who is organizing Fresh Start.

Based on a similar program in the Bronx and Brooklyn, anyone with non-violent misdemeanor charges who also missed a court appearance that resulted in a warrant is eligible, Van Nice says. This includes non-DUI traffic cases, low-level harassment or theft charges, and citations for using marijuana in public. It excludes domestic violence, third degree assault charges or anything that would require victim contact under the Victim Rights Act. The DA’s office can assess eligibility on any warrant prior to April 13, as well as the day of.

Van Nice estimates there are about 900 people who are eligible for the program through the DA’s office. At the municipal level, there are about 1,500 active warrants, according to Chris Reynolds, assistant city attorney for Boulder.

“Almost all of these warrants are for failing to appear to court,” he says. Although there are others who qualify, Reynolds says the majority of eligible people for the Fresh Start program are experiencing homelessness, with tickets for violating the camping ban, trespassing, open container and other similar laws in the city code. “It’s just kind of an unfortunate consequence of the system, how it’s set up,” Reynolds says.

And while this doesn’t change the City’s position on enforcing these laws, it hopefully will provide an alternative to issuing warrants, arrests and jail time.

“When you look at the effects of having an active warrant, [it] can keep you from being eligible for housing vouchers. They can keep you from being eligible for Section 8 housing. They can keep you from being able to get a job,” Van Nice says. “And, of course, those are all stability pillars.”

For the City of Boulder, partnering with the DA’s office for the one-day Fresh Start program is a chance to see if they could start something similar to Denver’s “homeless court” here, Reynolds says. For the past two years or so, the Denver County Court has been running what it calls Outreach Court at the Denver Rescue Mission, a nonprofit that serves the homeless population in the city. 

Every other Wednesday, they deal with about 100 or so different cases, says James Warren, a clerk who regularly works at the Outreach Court. He says people are never arrested. Rather, their warrants are cleared and cases resolved, often exchanging any fines for community service served the same day. People are also often connected to a variety of services through the Rescue Mission. 

“What we’re doing is hopefully making it easier for the homeless population in Denver to navigate the court system. It’s not a perfect panacea, but it’s something,” Warren says. “And it’s a way to take what could be a big hassle to take care of and possibly result in jail time, and turn it into some hours of community service and then they can move on with their lives.”

Outreach Court is “a model that Denver has adopted and regularly runs with and I think this is the City of Boulder dipping our toe into the pool and seeing how it feels,” Reynolds says.

Both Van Nice and Reynolds say Fresh Start will result in cost savings for the City and County, although they couldn’t say exactly how much. Reynolds says it could be significant given that any warrant resulting in an arrest requires hours of staff time from arresting officers, to jail bookings, to prosecutors, public defenders, court staff and judges. Plus, it costs approximately $132 a night to keep someone at the Boulder County Jail. “So there are definitely cost savings for taking care of warrants out of custody,” Reynolds says.

At the Boulder Justice Center on April 13, there will be clerks, judges, interpreters, sheriff’s officers providing security, immigration and defense attorneys on hand to assist in each case. If cases aren’t resolved that day, defendants will be given a new court date. Regardless, their warrants will be quashed and with it their risk of arrest.

“It recognizes that sometimes life gets in the way and if we can get your case moving, that is better for us, it’s better for the community and that is better for victims,” Van Nice says. “And it’s better for you. If we can resolve it then everybody wins.”    

More info: Fresh Start warrant forgiveness program. 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday, April 13, Boulder Justice Center, 1777 Sixth St., Boulder. bouldercounty.org/district-attorney