Monday, October 20, 2014

The Use of Bench Warrants in the War on Crime and Drugs by Alice Goffman

In 2007 Chuck and I went door to door and conducted a household survey of the ‘6th St.’ neighborhood in Philadelphia. We interviewed 308 men between the ages of eighteen and thirty. Of these young men, 144 reported that they had a warrant issued for their arrest because of either delinquencies with court fines and fees or failure to appear for a court date within the previous three years. For that same period, 119 men reported that they had been issued warrants for technical violations of their probation or parole (for example, drinking or breaking curfew).

According to contacts at the Philadelphia Warrant Unit, there were about eighty thousand open warrants in the city in the winter of 2010. A small portion of these warrants were for new criminal cases – so-called body warrants.  Most were bench warrants for missing court or for unpaid court fees, or technical warrants issued for violations of probation or parole.

Until the 1970s, the city’s efforts to round up people with outstanding warrants consisted of two men who sat at a desk in the evening and made calls to people on the warrant list, encouraging them to either come in  and get a new court date or get on a payment plan for their unpaid court fees. During the day, these same men transported prisoners. In the 1970s, as a special Warrant Unity was created in Philadelphia courts to actively pursue people with open warrants. Its new captain prided himself on improving and updating the unit’s tracking system, and getting these files on computer.

By the 1990s, every detective division in the Philadelphia Police Department had its own Warrant Unit. Today, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the US  Marshalls all run their own separate Warrant Units out of the Philadelphia force as well.

As the number of police officers and special units focused on rounding up people with warrants increased, the technology to locate and identify people with warrants improved. Computers were installed in police cars, and records of citizens’ legal histories and pending legal actions became synchronized – first across the city’s police force and then among police departments across the country. It became possible to run a person’s name for any kind of warrant, from any jurisdiction  in the country, almost instantly.

The number of arrests an officer or a unit makes had been a key indication of performance since at least the 1960s. When technology improved, taking people in on warrants became a ready way for police to show they were actively fighting crime. Those officers or units who cleared more warrants or arrested more people were informally rewarded; those who cleared or arrested fewer people were encouraged to catch up.

In interviews, Philadelphia police officers explained that when they were looking for a particular man, they access social security records, court records, hospital admissions records, electric and gas bills, and employment records. They visit a suspects usual haunts  (for example, his home, his workplace, and his street corner) at times he is likely to be there, and will threaten his family or friends with arrest if they don’t cooperate, particularly when they themselves have their own lower-level warrants, are on probation, or have a pending court case. In addition to these methods, the Warrant Units operating out of the Philadelphia Police Department use a sophisticated computer-mapping program that tracks people who have warrants, are on probation or parole, or have been released on bail. Officers round up these potential informants and threaten them with jail time if they don’t provide information about the person the police are looking for. A local FBI officer got inspired to develop the program after watching a documentary about the Stasi – the East German secret police. With another program, officers follow wanted people in real time by tracking their cell phones. .  .

6th Street is not the poorest or the most dangerous neighborhood in the large Black section of Philadelphia of which it is a part – far from it. In interviews with police officers, I discovered that it was hardly a top priority of theirs, nor did they consider the neighborhood particularly dangerous or crime ridden. Residents in adjacent neighborhoods spoke of 6th Street as quiet and peaceful – a neighborhood they would gladly move to if they ever had enough money.

Still, 6th Street has not escaped three decades of punitive drug and crime policy. By 2002, police curfews had been established around the area for those under age eighteen, and police video cameras had been placed on major streets. In the first eighteen months that I spent in the neighborhood, at least once a day I watched police stop pedestrians or people in cars, search them, run their names for warrants, ask them to come in for questioning, or make an arrest. In the same eighteen month period, I watched the police break down doors, search houses, and question, arrest, or chase people through houses fifty-two times. Nine times, police helicopters circled overhead and beamed searchlights onto local streets. I noted bocks taped off and traffic redirected as police searched for evidence –or, in police language, secured a crime scene– seventeen times. Fourteen times during my first eighteen months of near daily observation, I watched the police punch, choke, kick, stomp-on or beast young men with their night sticks.

The problems of drugs and gun violence are real ones in the 6th Street community, and the police who had come into the neighborhood are trying to solve them with the few powers that can be granted them: the powers of surveillance, intimidation and arrest. Their efforts do not seem to be stopping young men from attempting to earn money selling drugs or from getting into violent conflicts; whether they are helping to reduce overall crime rates is beyond the scope of this study.

Since the 1980s, the War on Crime and the War on Drugs have taken millions of Black young men out of school, work and family life, sent them to jails and prisons, and returned them to society with felony convictions. Spending time in jail and prison means lower wages and gaps in employment. This time away comes in critical years in which other  young people are completing degrees and getting married. Laws in many states deny those with felony convictions the right to vote and the right to run for office, as well as access to many government jobs, public housing and other benefits. Black people with criminal records are so discriminated against in the labor market that the jobs for which they are legally permitted to apply are quite difficult to obtain. These restrictions and disadvantages affect not only the men moving through the prison system but their families and communities. So many Black men have been imprisoned and returned home with felony convictions that the prison now plays a central role in the production of unequal groups in US society, setting back the gains made in citizenship and socioeconomic position that Black people made during the Civil Rights Movement

Whatever their effect on crime, the sheer scope of policing and imprisonment in poor black neighborhoods is transforming community life in ways that are deep and enduring, not only for the young men who are their target but for their family members, partners and neighbors.


  1. In modern history, only the forced labor camps of the former USSR under Stalin approached the levels of penal confinement that exist today in the U.S. Roughly 3 percent of adults in the nation are now under correctional supervision: 2.2 million in prisons and jails, and an additional 4.8 million on probation or parole.

  2. The Cruel Poverty of Monetary Sanctions
    by Alexes Harris, Mar 4, 2014, at 02:07 pm

    Alexes Harris is in the sociology department at the University of Washington. She studies social control and how institutions assess, label, and process individuals and groups.
    “Do the crime, pay the fine.” A little different, right? Many are unaware that when convicted of breaking the law, not only do people “pay” for their crimes by doing time, but they are also forced to pay up financially. The costs include court processing, defense attorneys, paper work, and anything else associated with their incarceration and supervision. In fact, anyone convicted of any type of criminal offense is subject to fiscal penalties or monetary sanctions. (If you have ever paid a traffic ticket, for example, you have paid a monetary sanction.) Further, the base fine of, say, a speeding ticket or even a major criminal conviction is just a small portion of the total cost. There are fines, fees, interest, surcharges, per payment and collection charges, and restitution. Until these debts are paid in full, individuals who have otherwise “done their time” remain under judicial supervision and are subject to court summons, warrants, and even jail stays.

    Because so many who are arrested and convicted are poor, unemployed, homeless, or suffering mental and physical illness, legal debt is a life sentence.
    As a result of interest and surcharges that accumulate on these financial penalties, this portion of a person’s sentence becomes permanent legal debt, carried for the remainder of their lives. And because so many who are arrested and convicted are poor, unemployed, homeless, or suffer from mental or physical illnesses, the fines just pile up—unable to be erased through bankruptcy—and tie them, indefinitely, to the criminal justice system. For them, debt is a life sentence.

  3. How Monetary Sanctions Work

    My research investigates the growth, process, and impact of legal financial obligations. Fines have always been imposed in the American criminal justice system. However, starting in the early 1990s, states began changing laws to dramatically expand the number and types of fees and surcharges they can impose. Each state legislature has constructed particular statutes to detail the types of monetary sanctions that judges can impose in addition to incarceration for felony convictions. Individual counties then implement their own formal (legally prescribed by county code) and informal (decided by local clerk offices) policies that guide amounts imposed at sentencing hearings, as well as the procedures for monitoring and collecting these fees.
    A recent study of fifteen states by the Brennan Center for Justice (at New York University) found that every state studied imposed fines upon conviction; imposed parole, probation, or other supervision fees; and had laws authorizing the imposition of incarceration fees. In Louisiana, indigent defendants are assessed an up-front fee of $40 for their public defender (mind you—the whole point of a public defender is to provide legal counsel for those who cannot afford it), and, at the time of sentencing, they are assessed an additional $300 fee for the “Judicial Expense Fund.” North Carolina has a “cost of justice fee” of $154.50 imposed on all felony defendants (the fine isn’t contingent upon conviction).

  4. In Washington State, monetary sanctions are called Legal Financial Obligations (LFOs). These sanctions are imposed by judges at sentencing hearings, but are monitored by court clerks (non-elected bureaucrats). The mandatory minimum LFO is a $500 victim penalty assessment, a $100 DNA collection fee, and a $200 clerk surcharge. As a result of additional fines and fees added, the average monetary felony sentence (not including restitution for victims) in 2004 totaled just under $1,400—an enormous sum for many desperately poor clients in the criminal justice system. These costs are imposed per felony conviction; so, if someone is convicted of multiple counts or offenses, the fines are multiplied. The initial amount also accumulates dramatically: 12% interest begins accruing from the day of sentencing, and a $100 annual collection surcharge is added to unpaid balances per felony conviction. Thus, for example, an LFO of $1,347 making monthly payments of $100 would pay off their fine in 16 months. Assume, however, that the defendant cannot make a payment. By the end of the sixth month, the LFO is now a bit over $1,400. After a year the total debt is over $1,600—for each charge.

    The Costs of Sanctions
    Remember, legally speaking, monetary sanctions are equivalent to court sentences such as jail or prison, community service, or probation. Until the legal debt is paid in full (including interest and surcharges), the defendant will remain under court jurisdiction, subject to violations for missed payments. Those with unpaid court debts cannot receive certificates of discharge, seal their records, receive pardons, or request deferred prosecution—legal mechanisms meant to allow those who have completed their sentences to move past their felony conviction to become productive citizens. These tools are essential for applying for a job, renting or purchasing a home, and applying for credit, since employers, landlords, and lenders frequently search applicants’ credit and legal backgrounds. Legal debt effectively derails prospects for success after conviction.

  5. Poverty, rather than public safety, effectively determines who remains subject to criminal justice surveillance, sanctioning, and stigma. Legal debt derails prospects for success after conviction.
    There are other consequences for poor felony defendants who enter “deferred sentence agreements,” which are intended to remove convictions from legal records if all fines, fees, and other court-imposed obligations are met (for example, attending drug treatment or performing community service). Poor defendants who meet the court requirements but cannot pay their fines and fees will continue to carry a felony record. Those defendants who can afford to pay the monetary sanctions, however, can quickly close the door on their criminal justice experience with a deferred sentence agreement.

    In short, poverty, rather than public safety, determines who remains subject to criminal justice surveillance and sanctioning and to the stigmatizing effects of felony conviction. Legal debt is typically substantial relative to the expected earnings of people with felony convictions, and it is usually long-term. In several U.S. jurisdictions, felons are regularly summoned to court and incarcerated for making insufficient or irregular payments toward their monetary sanctions. Debt can put a person back behind bars.

  6. 21st Century Debtors’ Prisons

    My forthcoming book A Pound of Flesh contrasts the growth of monetary sanctions with the legal protections against incarcerating the poor. The United States did away with debtors’ prisons in the 1830s, yet we’ve been expanding contemporary practices of imprisoning those who cannot pay court-related fiscal penalties. Ironically, in an era where state legislatures have decreased judicial discretion in sentencing to limit disparities, we see unfettered discretion in the imposition of fiscal penalties.
    Courts can legally impose jail days when those they convict are assessed as “willfully” not paying (that is, hiding money, not seeking employment to avoid making payments, or not seeking reasonable support from friends or family). Willful nonpayment constitutes contempt of court, so felons are seen as being sanctioned for contempt, not for their inability to pay. In researching my book, I repeatedly observed judges use their discretion to make assessments of non-paying legal debtors, deciding they had not been putting forth “enough effort” to raise money. One unemployed homeless man in Washington State was told he should have been begging for money by the side of the road to raise money toward his debt.
    Homeless, unemployed, or disabled persons like the man I describe are, in many jurisdictions, ordered to serve 10-60 days for contempt of court. Homeless debtors who have no address at which to receive notices of delinquency for non-payment are frequently arrested for their failure to appear in court. They can spend several nights in jail awaiting hearings. This process of extreme punishments for nonpayment only worsens the class disparities in criminal justice experiences and outcomes.

  7. a clear example of how the criminal justice system treats the wealthy and the poor differently. People with money can pay their fines and fees the day they are sentenced, with no future non-payment penalties. Worsening Inequality
    Legal debt is important. It affects many people—disproportionately poor people and people of color—and it has pernicious, tenacious consequences. And the U.S. criminal justice system affects more and more people: 1 in 37 U.S. adults has spent time in state or federal prisons; more than 700,000 people leave prison each year; and there are an estimated 16.1 million current and former felons in the United States. The debt is accumulating at an unimaginable rate.

    As a result of mass conviction and incarceration, jurisdictions cannot afford criminal justice costs. They literally transfer these expenses to defendants.
    Ironically, as a result of mass conviction and incarceration, jurisdictions cannot afford criminal justice costs. They are attempting to literally transfer these expenses to defendants. Since the vast majority of people who receive felony convictions in the U.S. have minimal employment and income prospects post-conviction, monetary sanctions deepen existing inequalities. Poor people carry the onerous weight of a criminal record in very different ways and for longer periods of time than those with financial resources and good connections (that is, people from whom they can borrow money). In effect, because they can’t pay their debts, the poor become perpetual subjects of the criminal justice system.

    Why We Should Care
    Law-abiding citizens (or those lucky enough to have never been caught and convicted) should care about this criminal justice practice: it is done in our names. The imposition of legal debt leads people convicted of crimes into further political, social, and economic marginalization. It is unproductive. Monetary sanctions attached to felony convictions are not efficient, effective, or ethical.

  8. This is not an efficient process. Because of the lack of automated court data, we do not know the extent of total debt owed, nor is there much information about the total dollars recouped by state and local jurisdictions. There is no consistency in how courts or jails “code” or keep track of defendants incarcerated purely for non-payment. Thus, we cannot know how many are jailed or how much is spent on monitoring, arresting, and incarcerating people for non-payment. Researchers truly cannot calculate the total criminal justice resources consumed in managing legal debtors, collecting outstanding debt, and sanctioning those who have not made payments.

    This is not an effective process. In many ways, monetary sanctions impose a barrier to rehabilitation or accountability. Legal debtors I have interviewed were frustrated, angry, and distrustful of a system that imposed financial debt in addition to imprisonment, community stigma, and other consequences. When people cannot pay or when the debt causes financial hardship, the sentence becomes self-defeating; many will try to avoid the criminal justice system altogether (they will ignore court summons or avoid police when they know they have warrants). Thus, they are not “held accountable” for their offenses, and they become isolated, frustrated, depressed, and disillusioned. Many defendants will never be able to pay off their legal debt (even when making regular payments), and, hence, their “debt to society” stands. Legal debt also impacts successful community reintegration: it stymies housing, employment, stable familial relationships, and the ability to view oneself as a productive adult citizen.

    Monetary sanctions attached to felony convictions are not efficient, effective, or ethical.

    This is not an ethical process. Imposing fiscal debt on already marginalized people who will face further marginalization after release from jail or prison is unjust. They have already been sentenced to a host of penalties: incarceration, community supervision, community service, drug and alcohol treatment, and victim panel classes. Adding monetary sanctions sets people up for failure; we know the vast majority will never be able to pay off the debt. Further, this system provides They can seal their cases faster. They can avoid repeated trips to the courthouse to make payments, sit before various judges, or provide monthly updates on their employment and housing circumstances. Because of monetary sanctions, the criminal justice experience is dramatically different for poor defendants. The practice sentences poor people to lives of poverty and punishment, releasing the wealthy to freedom.

  9. What Needs to Be Done

    Discussions about justice and punishment. Local, state, and national jurisdictions must revisit the place of monetary sanctions in contemporary justice. Such discussions could be used as a framework to discuss the reliance on and appropriate role of monetary sanctions in justice processing. Should we try to reform practices to impose more reasonable sentences (either fiscal or physical) that defendants can realistically fulfill? Is it ethical and prudent to impose sentences we know people will never be able to complete? What are the aims, purposes, and end goals of punishment?

    Abolition of non-restitution monetary sanctions. My research leads me to
    conclude that the most sensible policy is to abolish all non-restitution monetary sanctions for criminal offenses. The vast discretion given to judges and court clerks to impose and monitor legal debt and the ways this discretion has been used to further punish poor debtors troubles social justice advocates for very good reason: we cannot assess the total amounts of outstanding debt at local, state, and national levels, so we cannot challenge the notion that monetary sanctions make financial sense. Yet we know three things: imposing legal debt is counterproductive to the rehabilitative process; it provides a clear example of differential treatment of the wealthy and poor; and it leads to long-term criminal justice surveillance and sanction.

    Recommended Reading
    American Civil Liberties Union. 2010. “In For a Penny: The Rise of America’s New Debtors’ Prisons.” New York. Examines the implementation of monetary sanctions in five U.S. states to make the case that, despite having outlawed them, the country does have a contemporary system of debtor’s prisons.
    Alicia Bannon, Mitali Nagrecha, and Rebekah Diller. 2010. “Criminal Justice Debt: A Barrier to Reentry,” Brennan Center for Justice. Finds that monetary sanctions are increasing across state courts and details how they create a barrier to community reentry post-conviction and rehabilitation.
    Alexes Harris. Forthcoming. A Pound of Flesh: Monetary Sanctions as a Permanent Punishment for Poor People. Russell Sage Foundation ASA Rose Series in Sociology: New York. Using Washington State as an example, this book examines the growth of monetary sanctions and their impacts on the country’s most impoverished citizens.
    Alexes Harris, Heather Evans, and Katherine Beckett. 2010. “