In this holy day season of Light, Hope, and “good will toward all humanity,” we join together to trumpet our support for the proposal put forth by Professor Doug Colbert’s University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law students in their op-ed piece in the Baltimore Sun (“Unwarranted Warrants in Baltimore,” Thursday, December 10, 2015).
The idea of a “Warrant Forgiveness Program,” that allows for the one-time re-scheduling of court appearances for failure to appear may not solve all the problems of our criminal justice system, but can serve as a spark of light and hope for some who must navigate the system. This program will serve the guiding principle of “harm reduction,” rooted in our values of justice and forgiveness, and will allow offenders to meet their court obligations without fear of arrest and possible jail time for the infraction. This proposal makes practical sense, too: the costs to both the public (taxpayer money), and the effect on the lives of low-level offenders and their families for incarceration, is far greater than granting a second chance for persons who pose no danger for non-appearance on non-violent misdemeanor charges. The associated bails are often set at levels that are in effect “no bail” levels, and are inconsistent with the highest commitments and wisdom of all faith traditions.
Temporary forgiveness for a Failure to Appear (FTA) warrant, or a “holiday hiatus” on FTA arrests (and allowing people to obtain a new court date) is not meant to be “amnesty.” We believe that people must still accept responsibility for the crimes for which they have been charged. However, we also recognize that we are all affected by a system that is inefficient and punitive to the most vulnerable. We must remember that what happens to “them” over “there” affects and concerns all of us. This temporary policy adjustment is one small step that can reduce the fear and hardship experienced by a particularly disadvantaged segment of our city.
The pre-trial jail population (with many people languishing in jail for FTA warrants and unable to make bail) is a public disgrace, and is a poor reflection of our highest ideals of justice, compassion, generosity, and basic human worth and dignity. The opportunity for a one-time quashing of FTA warrants for non-violent misdemeanor offenders is a small and modest proposal, but a significant step in the right direction to providing a second chance for persons trying to fulfill their obligations to the courts. We plead for the mercy of the courts, and encourage all parties involved – state’s attorneys, police agencies, corrections officials, and public defenders to try a new resource in the justice toolkit. Let us join together to restore some modest degree of hope and light as our embodiment of the highest value of this holiday season.