How a library system is keeping people out of jail

Midwest

Attorney Pat Brayer with a client. Photo courtesy of Miranda Gibson and the St. Louis County Library

ST. LOUIS, Mo. (NewsNation) — Last February, Sean Carter (whose name has been changed to respect legal confidentiality) had two pending court cases in St. Louis County. He had been regularly attending court dates related to one of the cases, but he was unaware of the other case. The notice was sent to an old address, and he missed his court date.

A warrant was issued for Carter that would have led to his arrest for a mistake that wasn’t actually his fault. But thanks to a unique program run by the St. Louis County Library system, he was able to get help from an attorney who persuaded the local prosecutor to recall that warrant.

The program that helped Carter is called the Tap In Center, which operates out of two branches of the library system. It was established in the fall of 2020 through support from a MacArthur Foundation grant that funds a range of initiatives designed to reduce incarceration in St. Louis County.

The Tap In Center provides free legal support aimed at helping people get outstanding bench warrants recalled. Residents can come in and meet with an attorney, learn the status of their case, apply for a public defender and access other resources to deal with their legal problems.

“It has always been an issue in St. Louis County, and I’m sure, every other county in this country, of failure to appear,” said Miranda Gibson, who manages that grant for the county’s Department of Justice Services. “And whenever someone doesn’t show up to their court hearing, they are usually issued … a warrant for their arrest.”

Bench warrants play a significant role in arrests in many regions of the U.S. One report from the Research Network on Misdemeanor Justice at John Jay College found that in 2019, 14% of arrests made in St. Louis, Missouri were because of outstanding bench warrants. Most of those bench warrants in both places were related to low-level and nonviolent crimes. In some cities, such as Louisville, the rate is as high as 19%.

Gibson said the failure to appear warrants they work on recalling are based on court dates for a “full range of circumstances and charges,” but tend to be misdemeanors or lower-level felonies, such as property crimes.

“People can call us, email us, text us, or come in in person to chat,” Gibson said. “So they’ll come in during these hours, speak with a defense attorney about their case, and what prevented them from appearing at the previous court date, and then that defense attorney will speak to a prosecutor who is on call … to discuss circumstances and whatever they need to discuss about the case, ask for the warrant to be recalled.”

The decision to recall the warrant — and thus remove the threat of arrest and incarceration — is ultimately up to the prosecutor. But Gibson said prosecutors typically agree to do so unless the case involves a serious crime.

Since the program’s inception, the center has helped successfully recall 460 warrants. The exact number of people helped by the program is harder to estimate because some people had more than one warrant.

One potential obstacle to replicating this program elsewhere is that it requires buy-in from the local criminal justice system.

“We have a prosecutor that’s very pro-reform and is definitely willing to engage with us,” Gibson said. “Since this program was so dependent on prosecution being on board and actively participating and being a real partner, that can definitely hinder other places that might want to do it if that’s not the case.”

As for Carter, he later testified to the Tap In Center about how the program benefited him.

“They [the Tap In Center] helped me stay in the community, stay with my family, and take care of my kids. I could have been locked up on that warrant, so you guys helped me a lot,” he said in a testimonial given to the Tap In Center that was shared with NewsNation.

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