Earlier this month, hundreds of people with outstanding misdemeanor warrants showed up for the chance to get right with the law. Held at a school on St. Paul’s North End, Warrant Resolution Day was a smart, cost-effective way to help people handle those relatively routine legal issues.
The program joins other important “specialty courts” that have proven to be effective in resolving specific types of offenses. During the past two decades, Minnesota has established drug, mental health, housing and veterans’ courts.
The need is there. There currently are about 9,800 outstanding warrants in Ramsey County, including 3,000 misdemeanor warrants issued in St. Paul.
So organizers including the American Civil Liberties Union, NAACP Minneapolis and Pueblos de Lucha y Esperanza — as well as Hennepin, Ramsey, Dakota and Washington counties — held the event. The St. Paul City Attorney’s Office and the Minnesota judicial branch were also sponsors.
They gathered judges, defense lawyers and court reporters at the Saturday event — nicknamed “courtroom in a box” — to help participants work out deals with prosecutors, arrange payment schedules for fees and set court dates.
“People miss court because they have jobs, they don’t have child care, any number of reasons,” Ramsey County Judge Nicole Starr, who took part in the warrant resolution event, told the Star Tribune. “This is a way to get them to solve minor legal issues.’’
Community-based resolution sessions give people a sense that the judicial system is there to help them — not simply punish them. Interactions with the court system can be more positive when sessions are held in neighborhoods at convenient times — rather than downtown during the workday at the courthouse.
Specialty courts also can save money for the judicial system and, by extension, taxpayers. They can prevent expensive stays in jail and reduce repeats of minor offenses. In addition, keeping these kinds of cases out of traditional courts frees up time for other legal matters.
The long lines at this month’s event in St. Paul clearly showed that there is demand for court outreach. And because these kinds of programs work, they should be expanded.