Fugitives from the justice system
In April of 1997, the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Department reported that there were at least 69,189 warrants outstanding. These warrants included bench warrants for failure to appear in Milwaukee County courts, District Attorney Office apprehension requests, and warrants issued by the 18 municipalities surrounding the City of Milwaukee (which the Milwaukee County jail/sheriff’s department processes when the offender is arrested on the warrant).
As of October 31, 1999, there were 49,366 total warrant papers in the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s system. The sharp drop in this number does not necessarily mean that more people are showing up for their court appearances or that the numbers of people being charged with crimes has declined. The number primarily reflects the results of “operation purge,” undertaken by the court and the district attorney’s office to close out warrants for misdemeanants of “victimless crimes” that were seven or more years old. Some 20,000 bench warrants were “purged” in this effort.
Of the 49,366 warrants outstanding at the end of October of 1999, 27,211 were bench warrants — i.e. warrants issued when persons charged with a crime fail to appear for a scheduled court appearance. The nature and extent of this problem comprises the bulk of this report. Sources for data are relatively new, but they indicate that the “system” tries hard to apprehend and put into jail persons who might be a threat to public safety. The criminal justice system’s notification and follow-up process to defendants regarding their scheduled court appearance dates, times, and locations, however, continues to be a problem.
In addition to those individuals who are charged with a crime and who fail to appear in court, and are, therefore “out walking the streets,” the State of Wisconsin Department of Corrections reported in 1998 that there were about 3,800 persons convicted of a crime in Milwaukee County who were “unsupervised” because they had failed to report to the proscribed probation/parole agent.
After all efforts to find the offender have been expended by the agent, the agent (officially the Wisconsin Department of Corrections) may issue an Apprehension Request and Warrant. These are not bench warrants, because they have not been issued by the court, but they are recorded in the State Crime Information Bureau system, which means that the Request for Apprehension is noted in the Milwaukee Sheriff’s Department computerized system as well.
Two programs have been implemented since 1998 to deal with the 3,800 probationers who have failed to appear: the Absconder Unit, and the Rope Unit. The success of both programs relies on the probation/parole agents and Milwaukee County police officers jointly going out into the communities to last known addresses and other locations seeking out the offenders. The Rope Unit deals primarily with high-risk, assaultive individuals, and the Absconder Unit deals with probationers or parolees who have not shown up for regularly scheduled meetings with the probation/parole agents. Both Units are thought to be somewhat successful, although an evaluation audit has been conducted only of the Absconder Unit. There are currently about 3,500 uncontacted and unsupervised individuals in the corrections system, a decrease of about 8% (300 persons) in one year of operation.
There are still issues not being addressed (defendant notification, courthouse accessibility, courtroom locatability), and there are still causes for concern (27,211 outstanding bench warrants, and 3,500 absconders from their pro- bation/parole obligations). The wheels in the criminal justice system grind incredibly slowly, with more excuses than progress usually, although, thanks to the enthusiasm and stamina of some key individuals, some ideas are currently being tried in the courts on a pilot basis.
It is the conclusion of this report, however, that there needs to be a more comprehensive attack on the issues of failure to appear, and that the implementation of a full-time agency, dedicated to tracking and communicating with defendants from their first court appearance until their last, is required. This agency would bear the responsibility of assuring that defendants arrive when they are scheduled to appear, and, if they don’t, would have the authority and creativity to find them and bring them in. Many cities, in most states, have long-term experience with such an agency (often called a pretrial service agency). Milwaukee should cull through the material and knowledge available, and establish a notification/tracking/follow-up agency that meets the criminal justice system’s needs for the 21st century. The community would benefit from having fewer absconders and persons with outstanding bench warrants out on the streets.