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It has been estimated that more than two million people in New Jersey have outstanding arrest warrants for low-level criminal and traffic offenses. Thousands of people across the state live in fear of being arrested on an outstanding warrant for a fine that they cannot afford to pay. Child support, traffic fines, failing to appear in court, and disorderly persons offenses clog our court systems with little hope of successful resolution.
To resolve outstanding criminal and traffic warrants, defendants must travel through a daunting labyrinth. Poverty is a significant deterrent to resolution. The threat of arrest looms over some people for years, damaging employment and family responsibilities.
For an individual released from prison, this issue is critical to putting the pieces of his or her life back together after incarceration. All too often, someone serves a prison sentence, leaves the institution, and then finds themselves still facing outstanding warrants for child support, traffic violations, or municipal level offenses.
People can return home, find jobs, and be quickly re-incarcerated on old warrants creating a significant disruption for their families, employers, and their progress. There is an expectation that when you have served your sentence that you have figuratively and literally paid your debt to society.
People of color are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system. Unrest related to the disenfranchisement of non-white communities has made national headlines.
Executing warrants is dangerous for both the defendant and law enforcement. Finding peaceful and effective ways of resolving warrants is in everyone's best interest. If New Jersey can begin to reform its bail system; a system that permitted its jails to serve as de facto debtor’s prisons, clearly a more effective solution can be achieved related to low level warrants for arrest.
This issue is not endemic to New Jersey. There have been large-scale efforts to assist individuals with outstanding warrants. But despite the thousands of people assisted, substantive system change has not happened.