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Living in Fear and Eroding Trust

Legal entanglements are exacerbated if you don’t have financial resources. We can all relate to getting issued an expensive and inconvenient speeding ticket but what if the anxiety of being pulled over by law enforcement was coupled with a fear of outstanding legal issues that you were unable to resolve because of lack of money, or time, or transportation? If your legal situation was aggravated by a substance abuse problem, a mental health diagnosis, housing instability, a low wage job, or a lack of family support? If you knew that there was a warrant for your arrest for fines you couldn’t pay or for behavior in which you participated, how empowered would you feel to resolve these issues?

The reality is that this is the lived experience of millions of people across the United States each day. While the term fugitive may conjure images of someone fleeing the country or someone wanted for a capital crime, it can be applied to anyone who has an outstanding arrest warrant; criminal or civil. Evaluations of county crime databases found that court violations (e.g. failure to appear) accounted for over half of the warrants and that approximately 75% of those court violations were for traffic offenses. Although there is little research on the number of active warrants across the country, a study of the Wanted Persons file maintained by the National Criminal Information Center (NCIC) shows that approximately 2 million warrants are active on any given day. But, NCIC has significant limitations in that state and local law enforcement tend to only enter warrants that are more severe. For example, there are enormous disparities between the nearly 27,000 warrants listed for Missouri in NCIC in 2011 and the number of warrants outstanding in just Ferguson in 2014. Ferguson Missouri is home to approximately 21,000 but in December 2014, over 16,000 people had outstanding arrest warrants issued by their municipal court. The US Department of Justice reports that in 2013 alone, Ferguson issued warrants to more than 9,000 people for nearly 33,000 different offenses. Considering the lack of a centralized system for quantifying the number of actual arrest warrants in all localities across the country and the under-representation of these local warrants in empirical studies, it is not unfair to suggest that the number of individuals wanted on outstanding arrest warrants is staggering.

Image Courtesy of The Atlantic

The unrest in Ferguson Missouri after the fatal police shooting of an African American male in 2014 drew international attention to the unlawful court and police practices that served to erode trust between residents and law enforcement. The blistering report from the US Department of Justice Civil Rights Division on the Ferguson Police Department unmistakably depicts law enforcement practices as violating the law, undermining community trust, and evidencing racial bias. The Justice Department details the efforts of the Ferguson Police Department as focused on generating revenue and stated unequivocally that many of the unlawful stops of the FPD were driven in part by an officer’s desire to check whether the subject had a municipal arrest warrant pending. The court practices were draconian. A single missed, partial, or untimely payment to court was treated as a missed appearance and arrest warrants would be immediately issued without any notice or opportunity for explanation. For people with limited or no financial means, these practices resemble that of a debtor’s prison with no credit for time served.

In her ethnographic work, Alice Goffman discusses the role of policing and supervision in the lives of young men living in a poor black neighborhood and describes that for many of these young men, avoiding jail has become a daily preoccupation. Goffman states “Such threat of imprisonment transforms social relations by undermining already tenuous attachments to family, work, and community. But young men also rely on their precarious legal standing to explain failures that would have occurred anyway, while girlfriends and neighbors exploit their ​wanted status as an instrument of social control." Goffman hypothesizes that internalization of social norms such as obeying the law and attending to legal matters makes little sense in communities with a disproportionate police presence as compliance with things like court dates would hasten one’s removal to prison. She asserts that the lives of residents are organized precisely around fear of being sent to jail. In a recent TED talk, Goffman declares that law enforcement enter poor black communities not for public safety but to line city coffers.

However aptly her assertion may describe the bad acts of the Ferguson Police Department, to conflate unlawful court and law enforcement practices that prey on poor communities of color with the behavior of individuals committing violent crimes in their own community is a dishonest conversation. There is a difference between individuals who are victimizing others (about whom Goffman chronicles) and individuals who can't afford parking tickets or child support.

Mistrust between law enforcement and high crime neighborhoods erodes the value of being law abiding as it may be perceived as unachievable. A key recommendation for remedying unlawful enforcement practices and repairing community trust is to stop using arrest warrants as a means of collecting owed fines and fees and allowing amnesty programs to resolve outstanding legal matters. Removing the constant threat of confinement for low income individuals who desire to be law-abiding is imperative if a community wants to promote public safety and community engagement. Strategies on how this can be accomplished will be examined throughout the next blog posts.

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