Most people facing criminal charges show up for their day in court, according to available data. But those who forget a hearing date, or miss an appearance because of transportation issues or work or family responsibilities, can face serious consequences: Even people charged with low-level misdemeanor offenses or traffic violations can be arrested and jailed, fined, have their driver’s license suspended, or face other serious penalties for failing to appear in court.
Jefferson County, Alabama, tried a new approach last year with a “Back on Track” Amnesty Week, a collaboration between Circuit Court Judge Stephen Wallace, District Attorney Danny Carr, the public defender’s office, the sheriff’s department, and the county jail. During the five-day event, court staff worked with other community partners to help people clear outstanding arrest warrants for failing to appear in court and to vacate or reduce fines for nonappearance and low-level offenses and infractions. The county made it clear that only cases involving nonviolent felonies, misdemeanors, and traffic violations were eligible. The team also coordinated with the Birmingham Municipal Court so that both the city and county courts held amnesty events at the same time—and so that people not sure where their charges were filed could be referred to the appropriate place.
Over the five-day period, 571 people met with county staff; of these, 276 were seen by a judge, while the remainder were found not to owe court fines or fees nor to have an outstanding arrest warrant in the circuit or municipal court. People either were given a new court date or their case was handled on the spot, and fines for many low-level cases and traffic infractions were reduced. In total, 465 traffic citations and 152 misdemeanor and felony warrants were recalled or dismissed. None of those who participated were arrested. The county is exploring the possibility of holding another amnesty event in the future.
Although the problem of people failing to make it to court is complex and requires a broad set of solutions, the week was an important step toward addressing the issue in Jefferson County—and could serve as a model for other jurisdictions.
This interview with Wallace and Carr has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What prompted you to do something about unresolved failures to appear?
Wallace: What I noticed during COVID was that we lost defendants.
And we—judges, the district attorney, the public defender, all the key players—realized that we lost contact with some people for reasons we can all appreciate. The vast majority of people had missed a court date or had not paid a cost not because of willfulness, but because of, simply, life happening. They had moved, lost their lawyer’s phone number, had loved ones in the hospital, became overwhelmed, or thought it was hopeless—and inertia took over from that point.
I don’t see what the benefit would’ve been in incarcerating them. It would’ve affected their jobs, home status, and life with their families—all over minor offenses, many of them traffic violations that most of us would take for granted that we can handle.
Q: How did that lead to Amnesty Week?
Wallace: We thought a better approach was to invite people to court—not to be rearrested or committed to custody, but to have an opportunity to start over. So we got together the stakeholders—judges, public defenders, the district attorney, the sheriff—to decide that the cases we’d hear would primarily be misdemeanors, traffic tickets, and nonviolent felonies. We decided we’d remove warrants for arrest for nonappearance and would focus on addressing fines and court costs or reset court dates. Everyone’s goal was to address these things in a noncustodial way.
And we set aside one week and made judges available to hear anyone who came in.
Q: What was the mood like in court that week?
Carr: A lady walked up to me and said she’d been carrying this burden, this decision of whether to go to court. She’d been wondering how to pay her fine and fees and praying she wouldn’t get arrested. We got the warrant off of her head and did away with her fines and court case. She said, “Thank you for having the courage to do things differently.” She hugged me. She was crying.
Wallace: As the week went on, word got into the community that we were living up to what we said. So Friday was the busiest day.
I was humbled by the reaction I got, the appreciation I received. People were extremely grateful and happy to be done with the court system, for it to finally be over. They thanked us and said they should’ve come to court earlier; they said things like “No disrespect, judge,” or, “I wish I’d come and talked to you about it.”
It didn’t come across as anyone trying to game the system; they all acted in good faith and wanted to be treated fairly, get the matter behind them, and move on—to alleviate their concerns, their fear of arrest, or of not being able to get a license, or of owing a large sum.
At the end of the week, we realized there’s quite a bit of need for this effort. There’s a lot of inertia and fear in dealing with the court system, but if we meet people where they are, they’re willing to address these issues.
Q: What else is Jefferson County doing to address failure to appear in court?
Carr: One of the things we’ve talked about doing is starting up a text messaging system, something other than just mailing notices to someone’s house. In the neighborhood I’m from, a lot of people are trying to make ends meet from moment to moment with no stable housing. We know that when people move, a mailed notice doesn’t get to them.
And we want to figure out a way to have additional amnesty weeks and make sure we have more capacity than we did with this first one—make sure more staff is available and that we’re more efficient.
Wallace: I also think we’re doing a better job of realizing which matters need to be handled in court and which can be handled by Zoom or some other technology. It would be most convenient for all parties to handle a lot of issues electronically, rather than requiring someone to appear in court.
People are fearful of courts and police, so anything we can do to try to make them more comfortable about appearing is better for everyone—for the individual, for the courts, and for law enforcement.
Carr: Also, hopefully, other jurisdictions in the state will use our amnesty week as a model to think outside the box when dealing with nonviolent felony cases. These amnesty weeks not only help individuals who are charged; they help move cases in a clogged system and help victims get resolution and move on with their lives.
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