Amid a national conversation about abolishing cash bail in an effort to create a more equitable criminal justice system, that’s not as dependent on a person’s wealth, the Justice Collaborative (TJC) — an independent, nonpartisan research and advocacy organization devoted to holding public officials accountable for reforming the justice system — is taking matters in their own hands as they try and pursue justice for local arrestees.
TJC is currently attempting to assistance people currently detained in the Jefferson County jail due to a failure to appear (FTA) charges for non-violent offenses like unpaid traffic violations, marijuana possession and other low level offenses. TJC has donors who would like to pay bails for individuals and help get them out of jail.
FTAs in Jefferson County
According to the TJC, during July 2018, over one-third of the people booked into the Jefferson County Jail had a failure to appear warrant or charge. That translates to 355 people held on FTA charges who had no underlying violent felony conviction. The TJC explains the situation on their website:
Judges and district attorneys in Alabama and Jefferson County are destabilizing defendants and their families with failure to appear (FTA) charges. In Jefferson County, pretrial defendants are released from jail without being notified of their next court date. Instead, the court instructs them to call a phone number days later in order to get the information. Many have complained that getting through on the provided number is difficult and at times impossible. This leaves defendants with no way of knowing their court dates, making FTA charges inevitable.
Currently, neither the court nor District Attorney (DA) have a system or policy in place to check the location of a defendant before issuing a warrant. As a result, there have been instances where a warrants have been issued while an individual is detained in another county or in prison. Defendants are released in one jurisdiction only to be arrested in another.
Further TJC recommendations
The TJC believe the Jefferson County DA has the power to fix the FTA issue. Before a warrant is issued by a judge or new FTA charges are filed, the TJC believes the DA should:
- Ensure that actual notice of a court date was provided to the person, not a phone number to call. It is unjust for defendants to be penalized for the failing of the system.
- Conduct a quick internet check of surrounding jails and the state prison to ensure the person is not in custody.
- Assess, based on the person’s address, whether they have a means to get to court via public transportation if their license is suspended.
- Work with stakeholders to create a system to notify people of their court date, such as text message reminders, a method that studies show will increase court appearance.