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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, February 22, 2006

State must repair leaky warrants net

Keeping up with the flood of bench warrants (court- ordered warrants for arrest) is the kind of "mission impossible" that bedevils every state and municipal government across the country. Hawai'i's struggle with its own backlog is no great surprise.

But it's the hamhandedness of the state's proposed answers including a computerized "solution" that has only made the problem worse that is the real problem.

This week's special report by Advertiser writers Ken Kobayashi and Jim Dooley on the thousands of warrants that go unserved has exposed several handicaps that challenge the Judiciary in meeting its mission.

Among them: a manpower shortage that has only 12 sheriffs shouldering the warrant workload.

Where traffic fines and misdemeanor warrants are concerned, a major increase in personnel would make little sense, given the law of diminishing returns: The cost of serving more warrants might exceed the revenue collected.

But it's clearly important to improve the execution of warrants for more serious offenses, so staffing must undergo serious review.

There are other steps that could be taken more immediately. One is to fix the technical glitch that has held many warrants hostage for months. The state courts' database, known as the Judiciary Information Management System, was intended to speed the process by allowing the issuance of "paperless" electronic warrants. But because of a lapse in foresight and a failure to troubleshoot the system before its launch, JIMS has proven counterproductive.

The 3,900 "paperless" warrants issued since November were delayed and now are being served in paper form, The computerized system is a good idea but can't be used to its full capability until the law is changed to allow a judge's signature and an official court seal to be "electronically" placed on the warrant. State officials must ensure that the legislative fix is enacted as anticipated in June. No excuses, no delays.

Delaware reports some success in some reduction of its own backlog by making the identity of those who have outstanding warrants accessible on the Web. Bringing Hawai'i's own online roster up to date would be an inexpensive way to allow at least some to self-report on lesser offenses.

The state might also investigate instituting more catch points, similar to driver-licensing renewal, at which residents would need to clear non-criminal traffic warrants administratively.

But sadly, there is no easy solution for clearing the backlog of criminal offenders, other than simply instituting some measure of amnesty. That's a regrettable but unavoidable consequence of government's failure. It sends the wrong message to the scofflaws: that they can do their worst, and get away with it.