For three weeks this month, defendants who missed a court date for a nonviolent misdemeanor are being given a “second chance” to have their case heard without risking arrest for failure to appear (FTA) — if they voluntarily come forward.
State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, the Office of the Public Defender for Baltimore City, and Police Commissioner Kevin Davis joined forces to launch the FTA Second Chance Program this week.
During the program’s limited run on weekdays from January 9-31, 2017, eligible defendants can seek legal advice from a public defender, apply to have their FTA arrest warrant nixed, get a new trial date, and return home the same day without risking arrest. Nonviolent misdemeanors from this list will be considered for FTA forgiveness.
The amnesty has a dual purpose. Officials hope to chip away at a massive backlog of defendants arrested on FTA warrants who are now awaiting trial behind bars for minor offenses such as shoplifting or traffic violations. Also, they hope this will improve community relations with police by forgiving the failure to appear.
University of Maryland law professor Doug Colbert, who developed the program with a group of students, says defendants often have a good reason for failing to appear — job or child care commitments, health problems, or just as likely: fear. Defendants often “don’t appear because they’re afraid of bail or staying in jail for 30 or 40 days awaiting trial,” he says.
When a defendant misses a court date, the court issues a failure to appear warrant, which gives cops probable cause for arrest should they ever interact with that person, say, during a traffic incident or stop and frisk. The result, Police Commissioner Kevin Davis told a press conference Thursday morning, is that “people live in fear of arrest” and avoid the police.
Davis noted that of 35,000 arrest warrants currently out in Baltimore City, 6,800 are FTA warrants for minor offenses.
And when it comes to nonviolent misdemeanors, a failure to appear often intensifies the consequences of an otherwise minor offense—making fugitives of nonviolent offenders who, when caught, are either bailed (at their own expense) or jailed (at the expense of the taxpayer).
A failure to appear also marks your record and just about guarantees a higher bail in any future arrest—but this program does not protect from that. The FTA will remain on a defendant’s overall record.
The program will “allow us to focus on the violent offenders that need to be off our streets,” Mosby told those at the press conference.
“This is not a forgiveness program” for the underlying offense, said Mosby — that will still be prosecuted, which despite the warrant forgiveness, could well be a sticking point for those considering whether to take advantage.
The program, Davis said, is intended to create a “safe avenue to come to court” — but it’s one built on precarious grounds as police/community relations remain fragile at best.
Perhaps the toughest obstacle to the program’s success is whether the olive branch will be greeted with the level of trust its founders are hoping for. “We now have to convince a public that is often distrustful of our system,” says Colbert, “to take advantage of this opportunity, to take legal advice”.