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Louisville amnesty program helps clear bench warrants for low-level offenses

Close up of building sign that says "HALL OF JUSTICE"
J. Tyler Franklin
The ACLU of Kentucky described its second amnesty program as a success.

An amnesty program at the Jefferson County District Court last month helped clear more than 300 bench warrants for low-level and nonviolent offenses.

Clients of the amnesty program had active bench warrants dismissed and their cases rescheduled. At that future court appearance, they would not be subject to arrest.

Mark Pence was one of the people who went to the Jefferson County District Court for the program, in the hope of resolving a bench warrant related to traffic violations.

Pence, who is the founder of violence prevention nonprofit Gloves Not Gunz, said he was nervous to go in to the courtroom, but he saw a different atmosphere than he expected that day.

There was on-site child care and options for transportation. The ACLU of Kentucky and its community partners raised $60,000 to pay restitution.

“It was beautiful that, you know, they had people helping people, pulling up with laptops and … showing you how to do it on your phone, because I did it from my phone, which is great,” he said.

The process was pretty simple, Pence said. He appeared in front of a judge, but didn’t have to explain much.

“[It] gave me the opportunity to just be here without getting locked up. And I had already explained why I didn't come, you know, that I had some stuff going on. So they already knew it,” he said.

Amber Duke, executive director of the ACLU of Kentucky, said more than 170 people were able to clear multiple cases and active bench warrants through the amnesty program.

Warrants for low-level offenses are commonly issued in cases of failure to appear in court or pay fines, like for traffic violations.

Sometimes people don’t know when they have a warrant. And if it isn’t resolved, they can be at risk of arrest.

Often, people who have outstanding bench warrants don’t have the time, transportation or money to resolve their cases. They might not have time to take off work or child care available.

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research and advocacy organization, how courts respond to defendants in failure to appear cases can have far-reaching consequences.

“A missed court appearance could tip one’s score in favor of pretrial detention, which could last for months if not years on end,” the report said.

Duke said the idea came about when trying to handle the issue of overcrowding in jails and deaths at the Louisville Metro Department of Corrections. The first amnesty docket was held in 2022.

“There is a level of safety and comfort knowing that this is a dedicated effort that is geared towards people taking care and resolving cases as opposed to arresting people,” she said.

Duke said judges, public defenders and prosecutors at the Jefferson County District Court supported the program.

“This is one small way that we were able to help 170 individuals or so get something taken care of so those 174 don’t end up at LMDC,” she said.

She said the ACLU may try to repeat the program in the future, though no details are set.

Divya is LPM's Race & Equity Reporter. Email Divya at dkarthikeyan@lpm.org.

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