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Warrant resolution event helps many find path forward

Jay Eidsness and Maja Gamble hold up a sign advertising the warrant resolution event in St. Paul. David Clarey / RiverTown Multimedia

On Saturday, First District Judge Jerome Abrams sat in a Washington Technology Magnet School classroom in St. Paul. On his left and his right were typical courtroom employees, clerks and a courtroom reporter.

For the day, Abrams split time with fellow judge Jamie Cork away from their typical Dakota County courtrooms. The two were spending their time at a warrant resolution event meant to help people with misdemeanors find a resolution — which could range from paying fines to rescheduling a court date or other ways to move forward.

For one attendee, who said the outstanding warrant had made finding work difficult, Abrams rescheduled his court date and squashed the warrant on the condition the man made his new court date and didn't commit any crime.

"This is a great opportunity for people to get peace back in their life," Abrams said. "You don't have to wake up and be worried that cops are coming to take you to jail."

Event organizers said resolving outstanding warrants and offenses is often a looming issue — things like taking time off work, finding child care, or finding transportation to court dates can make it difficult to resolve initially. The longer it lasts, the worse it can be and potentially affects employment or housing.

Abrams underscored that it can be particularly difficult for people to get to court in Hastings, where there is a lack of public transportation. It can be further complicated if someone has to take off work, he said.

"Between making a decision ... 'This is a warrant on a speeding ticket that I forgot to pay the fine on or just keep going to work,'" Abrams said. "They'll keep going to work."

The warrant resolution event was put on by the American Civil Liberties Union, NAACP Minneapolis and Pueblos de Lucha y Esperanza and in conjunction with Dakota, Ramsey, Washington, and Hennepin counties, and the St. Paul City Attorney's Office and Minnesota judicial branch.

The event featured a number of services to help alleviate other issues. Some of the several hundred in attendance could find housing help and have child care on hand throughout the day. An attendee's resolution typically took somewhere between 30 to 45 minutes.

It was the third time Dakota County has held or participated in this type of an event and the first time it had partnered on a multi-county level, said Angela Lockhart, who works in the county's social services department.

The county first held an event on its own in November 2016, she said. It wasn't as successful without the community organizations like the ACLU or others.

"Our partnerships with the community organizations is really to increase trust," Lockhart said in an interview before the event. "They just haven't been as successful when we haven't had the partnerships."

Elizer Darris, with the ACLU, said that community organization partnerships helps "bring down the fear and terror of people."

The community organizations also negotiated with the government agencies to better improve the trust factor, he said.

Dakota County in total has 5,138 outstanding warrants, with 2,598 of those being misdemeanors, 1,239 gross misdemeanors and 1,301 felony charges, Lockhart said. A three-month look at outstanding warrants in 2017 found that about 80% of them were due to failure to appear, she said.

The county data also showed that about two-thirds of warrants are for people from outside the county.

That was part of the reason the event was held in St. Paul, she said.

"There's better public transportation, it's a little more accessible," Lockhart said.

Last year the event cleared about 80 outstanding warrants and Lockhart said the group expected anywhere from 600 to 800 people to attend this year.

People who have gone through the warrant resolution process often helps their wellbeing, according to exit surveys taken at previous events, she said. Ideally, the court system can draw on the event's successes to better inform practices, Lockhart said.

"To look at these innovative ways and building better systems in our day-to-day practices, there's a lot to be learned," she said.

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