SPECIAL REPORT | JUSTICE ON HOLD
No quick fix for backlog of warrants
|||Hassles await inmates eager to clear warrants|
States and counties seeking to reduce massive backlogs of unserved bench warrants similar to Hawai'i's are trying new approaches to bring more fugitives to justice.
Among their efforts: public Web sites that list the names of people wanted for arrest, amnesty programs and automated phone messages alerting those with scheduled court appearances.
But law enforcement experts warn there are no easy fixes for a national problem that allows hundreds of thousands of defendants to dodge possible jail time or avoid paying penalties. Limited resources and the lack of public will, they say, are worsening an already intractable problem.
Hawai'i has a pressing need to find answers to its own growing numbers of unserved bench warrants. Outstanding bench warrants at the state Sheriff Division number some 51,500 while 20,000 more felony and misdemeanor arrest warrants are in the hands of police departments statewide.
Each warrant represents someone accused of at least one crime who has not been brought to justice. And the accumulation of unserved warrants grows larger every day.
O'ahu driver Lois Tyler said she was flabbergasted by the numbers.
"It must be so frustrating for the judges and the police. We should look at other states or even other countries to see who has a better system. This needs to be fixed," she said.
Delaware reported good results after it rolled out a Web site last year as part of a larger program to reduce a backlog of 70,000 "writs," court orders similar to warrants targeting people who failed to appear in court or pay court-ordered fines and fees.
"The results have been great," said Peggy Bell, executive director of the Delaware Criminal Justice Information Center. The state now plans to add another 6,000 criminal arrest warrants to the site soon, she said.
Before launching the site, Delaware conducted a publicity campaign urging scofflaws to settle their legal problems before they were exposed to the public. That program was successful; some 1,500 more people came forward to resolve their legal problems in June 2005 than in the previous month, according to Delaware figures.
The Web site is also working, Bell said. "Some people whose names appear on the site call us and say, 'Just tell me what to do to make my name go away from that list,' " she said.
"What we're finding is that neighbors, prospective employers, current employers, they're our best enforcers. They see a name on the list, call us and tell us where these people are," Bell said. From May through October, the state served 15,541 writs, including a portion of the backlogged orders, she said.
In Orange County, Calif., the sheriff's office hosts a searchable online database of outstanding warrants. Visitors to the Web site can enter a name to learn if someone is wanted on arrest warrants.
The Web site, however, hasn't fully resolved Orange County's backlogged warrants.
Jon Fleischman, deputy public affairs director for the sheriff's office, said while the site is some help in tracking down fugitives and scofflaws, there are just too many for any law enforcement agency to keep up with.
"We've got a lot more arrest warrants than we're ever going to enforce," Fleischman said. "As a practical matter, the likelihood of you getting arrested because you failed to appear in court to answer a traffic charge is very small."
Another approach is publication of the names of people wanted on warrants in newspapers, which has been tried successfully by the Big Island police department.
The department chooses "high profile cases or cases that have been outstanding for a while," said Assistant Chief Ronald Nakamichi.
"It works," he said. "People turn themselves in" and readers call in tips on the whereabouts of wanted people, said Nakamichi.
Many defendants are aware that law enforcement agencies are unlikely to come looking for them, and that doesn't sit well with some Hawai'i legislators.
"If you don't enforce the law, what sort of message does that send?" asks state Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland, D-13th (Kalihi, Nu'uanu).
Chun Oakland, who's married to a deputy sheriff, is the author of a bill that would authorize the hiring of more deputies by adding $5 to a $50 fee already assessed by the courts every time a warrant is served. Chun Oakland said more deputies would not only mean additional arrests, they would also bring in more money to the state treasury.
"There's at least $10 million in lost revenue every year that could be used to pay for other public services," said Chun Oakland, a reference to the fines that go unpaid by subjects of warrants. "This is a bill that can actually accomplish some immediate results."
Chun Oakland's idea has merit, as does devoting more of the $50 collection fee to beefing up the sheriff's warrants service program, said Corinne Watanabe, associate judge with the state Intermediate Court of Appeals and co-chairwoman of a Judiciary committee overseeing an overhaul of the courts' computerized record-keeping system.
State Sen. Colleen Hanabusa, D-21st (Nanakuli, Makaha), chairwoman the Senate Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs Committee, said she was shocked by the numbers of outstanding warrants. Increased penalties for traffic scofflaws may be another solution, as would night court or weekend courts to process these warrants immediately, she said.
Hanabusa introduced bills this year that would extend court hours and authorize the hiring of retired police officers to serve warrants. She said both bills would cost money and noted that any increase in penalties would further strain an already bursting jail and prison system.
Enforcing traffic laws will probably be more effective if violators are forced to give up their licenses or forfeit their vehicles immediately, she said.
"Unfortunately, no state or county agency wants to deal with forfeiting vehicles because it takes up space and time," she said. But O'ahu driver Joseph Gerarden thinks officials should hold violators accountable.
"They should definitely remove their cars from them and impose some financial responsibility," Gerarden said.
One of Hanabusa's bills also proposes an amnesty program, an approach that has been tried with limited success both here and on the Mainland. Amnesties allow those wanted on outstanding traffic warrants to surrender and pay their fines and fees without risk of jail time. Under a two-month program in 1998 called project Clean Slate, the state Judiciary collected $300,000 from more than 1,500 people.
Another amnesty measure, introduced by Rep. Blake Oshiro, D-33rd (Halawa, 'Aiea, Pearlridge), would wipe out nonfelony traffic charges pending against prison inmates already serving time for felony convictions. California has adopted a similar program. But the bill was deferred this month after Honolulu police, the attorney general and city prosecutors objected to it for technical reasons and because they said it appeared to let offenders avoid punishment for their crimes.
Peggy Bell said Delaware is also looking at an automated telephone messaging system that alerts people two days ahead of time of their upcoming court dates. The vendor of one such system has claimed it reduces court no-shows and arrest warrants by about 40 percent.
PUBLIC TO BLAME, TOO
David A. Harris, a criminal justice expert and law professor at the University of Toledo College of Law, said government can spend only so much money on deputies and Web sites to solve the warrants backlog.
"It just isn't practical to hunt down every person for whom we have a warrant, whether they are traffic or criminal," he said.
He believes the public is as much to blame as law enforcement.
"We don't and haven't as a society put any kind of priority on this," he said.
His solution to this dilemma is just what Honolulu police and sheriffs say they do now given their limited resources: put a priority on catching fugitives who pose the greatest threat to public safety.
Hanabusa also suggested the state take a further look at eliminating old warrants.
The Judiciary last year purged some 25,000 old bench warrants from law enforcement files and is upgrading the courts' central computer system to better handle arrest warrants.
The improved computer system, called JIMS (Judiciary Information Management System), is tied to a Web site that allows the public to view traffic violations of all drivers in the state.
Visitors to the site can also find out if arrest warrants have been issued for specific drivers, although it was not designed with that purpose in mind. Users need patience and time to navigate through the site and figure out its codes and terminologies.
Judge Watanabe said using data already available in JIMS to create a warrants Web site similar to Delaware's "sounds like a great idea." She cautioned that Delaware, unlike Hawai'i, has an integrated law enforcement information system, but said the courts would look into the concept.
Hawai'i Attorney General Mark Bennett said in a statement that officials must take action to reduce the backlog of unserved bench warrants here, but offered no specific proposals.
Bennett said it would be "appropriate for the Legislature to form a task force consisting of the Department of the Attorney General, the police departments of the various counties, the Department of Public Safety and the Judiciary to determine the best course of action to effectuate service of the unserved warrants and to ensure efficient and timely service of all future arrest warrants."