Last week, more than 1,800 people with outstanding warrants lined up outside a command post at a north central Phoenix church, surrendering themselves to police. On-site judges, prosecutors and fine-payment counselors housed in tents facilitated what one Phoenix police spokesman called “a very interesting experiment”: a concerted push by municipal courts and policy enforcers to resolve some of the city's110,000 outstanding misdemeanor-arrest warrants, without actually having to make arrests.
Most of the participants in the New Opportunity Warrant Clear Up Program came in response to mailers sent out with water bills, which advertised a fresh start for thousands of area citizens who've been charged with misdemeanor crimes like traffic violations, domestic violence, shoplifting, or failure to appear in court.
Phoenix Municipal Court spokesman Loren Braud told the Arizona Republic,
"The judges at the site can make a warrant go away if a person pays a fine. If the person makes a good-faith payment and gets on a plan to settle the fine, the judge can quash the warrant. It seems to be working very well."
Police Sgt. Tommy Thompson agrees that the program has been a success. On top of the 1,800 warrants resolved last week, he says hundreds more are expected to be resolved this, the last week of the two-week program.
Police and the Phoenix Municipal Court pioneered the warrant clearing program as a cost savings measure. If people have incentive to voluntarily turn themselves in, officers don't have to waste time and money serving warrants and making misdemeanor arrests, officials say.
According to Thompson, the city "wants to see the short-term and possible long-term effects of first encouraging people to come in on their own and get their warrants out of the way, then bringing them in."
And bring them in they have. What started as a program to clear warrants off the books of over 2,000 residents through fine payment plans or other arrangements that avoid jail bookings (a costly procedure for cities who have to house their inmates in county facilities), has turned into an all out warrant roundup with a 'prisoner holding area' making its debut on the scene. What Thompson didn't divulge to the press was that, Starting Monday, Phoenix police quietly shifted away from the tactic of using a carrot to that of the stick.
"The police department is actively enforcing our list of outstanding misdemeanor warrants. So we're actually out there arresting people at their homes or wherever we can locate them, and bringing them to this command post where we process them and book them into jail,"
Sgt. Leah Ray told FOX 10 news on Monday, adding:
"It's the first time we've done anything like this... we have judges, prosecutors, defenders, and a full bond window out here."
Though Thompson says we will have to wait on a review of the program by city officials, he is adamant that Phoenix has already saved "well over $200,000" on the people that have already been processed without booking them into jail.