On the heels of an amnesty day that attracted hundreds of people on a Saturday to clear misdemeanor warrants and pay traffic fines, local leaders are calling for City Court to hold additional amnesty opportunities and to expand its court hours to nights or weekends to try to further reduce the thousands of outstanding warrants in the parish.
Several local and law enforcement leaders said the amnesty day event demonstrated the clear need to give misdemeanor offenders opportunities to come to court outside of the typical Monday through Friday work week, because they believe many people are missing court because they are at work.
Council members are asking for similar amnesty days to be held in their districts at off-site locations like the event on Dec. 5, which was held at the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center.
The council also passed a resolution this week urging City Court to hold night court or Saturday court once a month. But other officials are cautious about committing to additional work because of concerns about the cost of regularly extending their hours.
The true cost of the amnesty day is still being calculated. Estimates have ranged from $30,000 to $50,000 for the single day of work, most of which goes to overtime pay for about 100 people who helped work the event.
Officials say between 1,200 and 2,000 offenders showed up at the event to pay off their tickets or work with judges to resolve their district and city court warrants.
Less than 900 warrants were recalled on that Saturday, and hundreds of others were issued rainy day slips to come back in the following days, leading to more than a thousand additional warrants to be recalled.
It’s a drop in the bucket for the backlog of 160,000 outstanding misdemeanor warrants on the books between city and district court. And collections, about $16,000 for city court and $1,600 for district court, didn’t make up for the thousands of dollars it cost to put on the event.
“This wasn’t about cost; this was about showing good will,” said District Attorney Hillar Moore III, who helped spearhead the event.
Amnesty day was born out of a desire to reduce the number of outstanding misdemeanor warrants on the books. Recently, Moore and other leaders asked for the city-parish to move forward with using dedicated funds to open a misdemeanor jail for two weeks at a time to go after scofflaws who repeatedly refuse to show up in court. But council members and jail reform advocates rejected the proposal, fearful it would target mostly poor, black nonviolent offenders, many of whom have warrants for traffic-related violations.
Moore helped organize the amnesty day as a way to help clear warrants and allow people to pay fines, absent the threat of being hauled to jail, to illustrate that arresting nonviolent offenders wasn’t the intent of a future misdemeanor jail.
This week, other council members expressed interest in having similar events in their districts. But City Court officials say they’d prefer to have future amnesty events at City Court because of how burdensome and expensive it is to create a remote courtroom for a day.
Having an abundance of amnesty opportunities can also deter people from coming to court in the first place, said City Court Judge Laura Prosser.
“I’m very concerned about the message it sends to the public,” said Prosser, who will be City Court chief judge beginning in January. “What that tells people is don’t worry about taking care of your tickets in court, just hang in there and wait until an amnesty day and it will all go away.”
She said amnesty is a good policy every once in awhile, but she’d rather see it held at the courthouse to save money and resources. She also said she would be willing to consider night or weekend court, occasionally.
The City Court judges will meet next month with various courthouse stakeholders to decide whether to commence a monthly night or weekend court.
Lea Anne Batson, parish attorney who oversees the City Prosecutor’s Office, said her staff is prepared to handle the additional work by providing compensatory time to employees.
“Our prosecutors are salaried and accustomed to working extra duty,” she said. “It’s only a few hours a month, and we believe the benefits will outweigh the costs in the long run.”
But Constable Reginald Brown said his office would require additional funds if he’s expected to staff night or weekend court once a month. He said he would need at least six deputies to work per overtime shift to provide security.
“The city-parish would have to find a way to fund it,” he said. “We couldn’t do it under the present budget. I can’t shift those hours because I’m already down to a minimum staff.”
Lynn Maloy, City Court administrator, said 30 City Court employees worked a total of 255.5 hours at the Saturday session. That doesn’t count the two City Court judges who are salaried and volunteered their time. The employees are being compensated with $3,640 in overtime dollars and 2,404 compensatory hours paid to employees who are not receiving overtime.
On Saturday, 722 City Court bench warrants were recalled, she said. And in the days that followed, another 1,208 warrants were recalled from people who received rain checks.
City Court Judge Tarvald Smith volunteered to work Amnesty Day with a few other judges. He said most of the people he dealt with said they had missed court because they couldn’t take off from work.
“If we had a Saturday court or an afternoon court, it would help these people,” he said.
Smith said that while he supports extending the hours, he needs to hear from the other agencies involved to ensure they have the resources to move forward.