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Louisville amnesty program helped more than 150 people avoid jail time for missed court dates

Decorative Scales of Justice in the Courtroom
Getty Images/iStockphoto
Decorative Scales of Justice in the Courtroom

Louisville officials recently offered some people charged with low-level offenses the opportunity to participate in an amnesty period. That means people who missed court in Jefferson County could possibly avoid arrest and unnecessary jail time for that violation.  

Nonviolent misdemeanors and class D felonies were the kinds of cases that potentially qualified for amnesty. More than 150 people were eligible and able to reschedule their court dates or pay off fines.

The ACLU of Kentucky, city officials, criminal justice reform advocates and family members of the program’s participants provided an update during a press conference Wednesday.

Before applying for amnesty, Harriett Rankin’s sister lived in fear of arrest related to a missed court payment for 20 years. Rankin said her sister experienced paralyzing anxiety that worsened with time. That kept her from addressing the decades-long bench warrant. 

Opportunities like this — which offered people assurance and support navigating a complicated system — can break that cycle, she said. 

“She had team support through the local community bail fund, and they stood in court with her,” Rankin said. “So me and my family were super excited that she got to take care of that problem. She's super excited. I'm telling you, she's walking the streets with her head held high.”

Rebecca Frederick, with the Louisville Community Bail Fund, said the amnesty opportunity allowed social justice organizations and residents to come together and accommodate people’s needs so they could make their court dates. 

“We were able to have core support, which was a way for us to help lift the barriers…we were able to offer child care and transportation,” Frederick said. “Folks who showed up were able to have their cases cleared, they were able to get new court dates, they were able to just get things cleared up and no one went to jail.”

Frederick said merely diverting people out of the overcrowded, downtown city jail is a success. 

The effort itself was made possible, in part, because community members and advocates raised alarm over the recent high number of deaths among people in custody of Louisville Metro’s Department of Corrections, she said.

Shameka Parrish-Wright,  community advocacy and partnership manager of the Louisville Bail Project, said she hopes the high turnout will encourage criminal justice officials to consider expanding eligibility for and the frequency of these reprieve periods.

“We came together as a result of the eight jail deaths, we know that the jail still has issues. This is just one of the things that we are working on to bring real change,” Parrish Wright said.  “We want to keep encouraging our judges to make the right decision. 

She also urged city officials to ensure residents’ basic needs are met. This includes increasing access to transportation, affordable housing and food.

“There's a lot to public safety and not just sending people to jail who don't need to be there,” Parrish Wright said. 

Kungu Njuguna, a policy strategist with the ACLU of Kentucky, mirrored Parrish-Wright’s message in an interview with WFPL News. He said advocates continue to push for more amnesty opportunities. The underlying problem that needs reform is the issuance of bench warrants for low-level offenses, like missed court dates, Njuguna added. 

“It can complicate their life. Many individuals get arrested. And then you may miss work, you get fired, and it has all those collateral consequences,” Njuguna said. “We will be looking to expand the number of cases that they look at to be eligible, quite frankly, we think almost all offenses should be eligible to sign up. I mean, the point is that people show up in court.”

He said although the amnesty period is over, people charged with low-level offenses and those who have bench warrants for missed court dates can continue to request rescheduling their hearings, without facing the penalty of jail time. This is always an option, though it is underused because some distrust the system and others face logistical barriers to making it to court.

Njuguna acknowledged many people with bench warrants are fearful of voluntarily interacting with the court system, but he said they have the option of going to the case manager’s office, a public defender or their private attorney for rescheduling help.

“The point of [the amnesty period] was for people who are out in the community, people who are trusted in the community to say, ‘Hey, you can trust this process during these times, please sign up and get your bench warrant recalled,’” Njuguna said. 

Rankin, who has previously spent time in the Louisville jail and whose sister recently participated in the amnesty program, urged people to request new court dates in an effort to avoid a bench warrant and subsequent arrest. 

“Even though I committed a crime, you become a victim inside the jail,” Rankin said. “I've watched plenty of people that have health issues inside of there, if they could get care, there's not enough staff to take care of all the floors inside of the jail.”

City officials have not committed to a regular amnesty period. It falls on the County Attorney, public defenders, District Court judges and the Circuit Court Clerk to come to an agreement and make that happen.

Michael J. Collins contributed to this story.

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