Several criminal justice organizations called area nonprofits last fall to spread the news about an exciting new project they were piloting. A new hotline would allow callers from the South Bronx to learn if any warrants for their arrest had been issued and, if so, how to get rid of those warrants.
When word of the new hotline reached Clinton Washington, 39, a client advocate at the Bronx Freedom Fund on East 161st Street, he decided to call it himself.
“I don’t recommend anything to any of our clients that I don’t wholeheartedly believe in,” said Washington. “Just because something says that it’s helpful doesn’t meant that it is.”
But Washington found the call seamless and useful. He suspected he had a five-year old warrant for missing a court hearing to address a violation for being found with a container that contained alcohol. Though he denies having had the container, he says he was relieved to find out that the alleged offense was indeed on the books, and how easily he could clear it up.
“It was always in the back of my mind,” said Washington.
Criminal justice and research professionals who led the push to establish the hotline say that the stress of a potential arrest is problematic for New Yorkers. So they established the hotline and operated it between late September and early November, to help Bronxites with minor, non-violent offenses to clear their names. Now they are thinking through ways to help the city determine whether to institutionalize the service and market it across all five boroughs.
Because the 40th, 41st, 42nd and 44th precincts all serve South Bronx neighborhoods that rank among the city’s highest for the numbers of open warrants, the area was chosen to market the pilot, according to Lauren Gardner of Reboot, one of the organizations behind the hotline. Reboot, a social research and project design firm, was enlisted by the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice (MOCJ) last year as they tried to reduce New York City’s roughly 900,000 open summons warrants.
Most warrants are issued when one fails to appear in court after being charged with a low-level offense, say Reboot, MOCJ, and the Legal Aid Society. After Reboot, MOCJ and other city agencies thought up the hotline to alleviate the problem, Legal Aid, which advocates for criminal justice reform and provides legal services for those with limited funds, was enlisted to handle the calls. The hotline received 121 calls in all.
William Woods, who has been at Legal Aid for 12 years, took pleasure in breaking down hotline callers’ uncertainties. “It’s very hard to alleviate the stress of facing a criminal charge; the stress of having a warrant, or not knowing if you get stopped by the police if you’re going to get handcuffs on you,” said Woods. “These are things that folks are walking around with that just really weigh on them.”
It will take Reboot, the Legal Aid Society, and the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice time to analyze their experiment. Without the hotline, the only way one can find out about any warrants against them is by visiting the courts, says Gardner. That, she says, may prohibit folks from dealing with them. “People often think they’ll be arrested on the spot,” said Gardner, adding that in the case of summons warrants, immediate arrest is rare.
Because of the fear and stigma around individuals investigating their own open warrants, Washington and his Bronx Freedom Fund colleague Yonah Zeitz valued the confidentiality of the hotline. Zeitz thinks the city should continue and expand the hotline, keep it confidential, and provide even more services for people who have committed low-level offenses, like expunging old summons warrants.
“Old warrants—like for an open container that’s almost five years old—should just get removed immediately, and the city could do that themselves,” said Zeitz.