Stop locking up the non-violent poor

Why must Maryland lock up people who commit minor infractions but miss court dates?

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 Cary School of Law students in their commentary in The Sun ("Unwarranted warrants in Baltimore," Dec. 10). The students found and highlighted the high numbers of persons who find themselves held while waiting for a new hearing date for failing to appear. They also highlighted the impact of poverty, race and behavioral health challenges in the analysis of who gets locked up and why. It is because of the effect widespread use of FTA warrants on already vulnerable populations that we, leaders within various faith traditions, present the following proposal for warrant forgiveness.

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 it 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, both to public coffers (taxpayer money) and in terms of personal lives, for incarcerating low-income people who pose little or no danger for non-appearance on misdemeanor charges, is extreme and inconsistent with the aspirations 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, largely African-American, 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 tool kit. Let us join together to restore some modest degree of hope and light as our embodiment of the highest value of this holiday season.

Rabbi Geoff Basik, Kol HaLev Synagogue Community; Rev. S. Todd Yeary, Douglas Memorial Community Church; Bishop Eugene Sutton, Episcopal Diocese of Maryland; Imam Earl El-Amin, Muslim Community Cultural Center of Baltimore; Rev. Alvin Hathaway, Union Baptist Church; Bishop James L. Carter, Ark Church; Rev. Darron McKinney, Macedonia Baptist Church; Rev. Arnold W. Howard, Enon Baptist Church; Rev. Errol Gillard Sr., Baptist Ministers Conference of Baltimore & Vicinity; Rev. Lester A. McCorn, Pennsylvania Avenue AME Zion Church; Rev. Kevin A. Slayton Sr., New Waverly United Methodist Church

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