When Pilisi Lane first saw an ad on Facebook for Warrant Forgiveness Day, an event claiming to resolve outstanding misdemeanor warrants in Hennepin County, she thought it was a setup.
She moved from Minneapolis to Phoenix, Ariz. three years ago with a warrant for driving without insurance and a suspended license hanging over her head. It was difficult for her to land a permanent job, let alone one with proper benefits.
“A warrant is a warrant, and we don’t look at it as petty or misdemeanor,” Lane said. “When it’s a warrant, you’re scared.”
Then she learned local chapters of the ACLU and NAACP were co-sponsoring the event. She booked a flight to Minneapolis and was one of the first in line at the Sabathani Community Center on a rainy Saturday morning.
Lane met with a judge in a makeshift courtroom on the center’s auditorium. The judge resolved her case, reduced her community service to two hours and removed a $128 fine.
“I flew all the way here, just for this,” she said. “It was worth it.”
The ACLU hoped to resolve at least 200 warrants for misdemeanor crimes during the event. They could include anything from traffic violations to smaller criminal offenses such as theft or loitering.
Jason Sole, president of the Minneapolis NAACP, came up with the idea for Warrant Forgiveness Day more than a year ago. The organization partnered with the ACLU of Minnesota and got the support from Hennepin County judges and public defenders to bring it together.
“There were too many good people not finding a way to exit the system,” Sole said. “Some people might run, some people are afraid, and I just wanted to reduce that.”
There are 10,000 warrants for low-level misdemeanors out right now in Hennepin County, Assistant Chief Judge Toddrick Barnette said. People avoid addressing them in court for several reasons, including financial stress and mistrust of the justice system.
“If we can give someone this opportunity so that it won’t be so stressful for them to walk around the city or work ... that’ll be great,” Barnette said.
It costs $132 a night to keep someone in jail, a cost greater than the bail for many of these misdemeanors.
“We’re saving the county money by taking care of people’s warrants,” Barnette said.
Saturday’s event was different from how law enforcement and the justice system usually handle outstanding warrants. Anyone with an outstanding warrant can be arrested, booked into jail and scheduled for a court date, where they are likely to face a greater sentence.
One by one, people entered the faux-courtroom with doubt and left in relief — many with a smile on their face.
Upstairs, old classrooms were converted to spaces where people could finish their community service. Lane spent her two hours writing letters to family and strangers in prison. Others made place mats that will be used for Meals on Wheels, or went to nearby churches to volunteer.
Sharita Claiborn wrote letters next to Lane. She received a warrant last year for failure to appear for Sentencing to Service, which she was assigned to after driving without insurance. The stress of the warrant was so much that she moved to Ramsey County to avoid it.
Like Lane, she saw an ad for the event on Facebook. She arrived at the center at 7:30 a.m.; the courtroom meeting took no more than 15 minutes.
“It’s cold and raining outside, so just to sit here and write letters to inmates or decorate bags ... it don’t get any better than this,” she said.
Sole said he hopes there are more programs like this in the future, or a monthly night court where charges are quickly resolved or disposed.
“I honestly think they should do this every year,” Claiborn said. “I almost wanted to jump up and down and give everyone at the table a hug.”