Every day, police across the country fan out to arrest thousands of individuals who have failed to show up for court appearances or are delinquent in paying a fine, under the authority of a bench warrant issued by a local judicial authority.
The warrants, most of which relate to non-violent or low-level charges such as traffic violations, have been called a major factor in the buildup of distrust towards police in Black and brown communities who say they are disproportionally targeted by warrant enforcement.
New data suggests that these perceptions are correct.
A study released by the Research Network on Misdemeanor Justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice of warrant enforcement in the city of St. Louis, Mo., and Jefferson County in Kentucky, found “substantial racial disparities” in warrant arrests.
Arrest data for 2019 showed that in St. Louis, four Black individuals were arrested in bench warrants for every white person; in Kentucky’s Jefferson County, where the state’s largest city of Louisville is located, the ratio was about three to one.
But researchers studying arrest patterns between 2006 and 2019 also found a stark difference between the two cities in the number of arrests. Total St. Louis arrests for bench warrants decreased 59 percent during that period; in Louisville, the arrest rate increased by 73 percent.
The principal reason for the drop in St. Louis arrests, researchers concluded, was the enactment of municipal court reforms in St. Louis. But the pattern of disproportional racial impact in both cities, researchers said, strengthened arguments for reform of an area of law enforcement that has received little public attention, but is a major driver of police-community tensions.
“What this research shows is that the enforcement of bench warrants for relatively minor offenses is taking up a significant amount of police time and resources, and potentially putting individuals on a path towards further entanglement within the criminal legal system,” said Preeti Chauhan, director of the Data Collaborative for Justice, which oversaw the studies.
In 2016, the last year for which official figures were available, there were an estimated 7.8 million outstanding warrants in the U.S. But researchers believe this official figure is vastly underestimated, since it does not include warrants associated with municipal enforcement.
Many municipalities depend on the revenue generated by fines for violation of municipal ordinances to sustain their budgets, leading to a dynamic of aggressive enforcement in many poor communities. A federal study identified that dynamic as one of the factors that triggered the outbreak of community anger in Ferguson, Mo. following the police killing of Michael Brown in 2014.
In the two cities studied by the researchers, enforcement of outstanding warrants accounted for a significant percentage of police arrests last year: 14 percent in St. Louis, and 19 percent in Louisville.
The most common charge leading to the issuance of an outstanding warrant related to a traffic violation.
The data underlined reformers’ arguments that aggressive police enforcement of warrants had as much to do with revenue generation as with the protection of public safety.
“People tend to think of warrants as being issued for serious felonies,” said Lee Slocum, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of St. Louis, Mo., and a co-author of the analysis.
“But what this data shows is that, in St. Louis and Louisville, when people are arrested only for bench warrants, the majority of those warrants resulted from low-level offenses.
Researchers said further reform of municipal and police practices relating to warrants should address the lingering issues of racial bias.
Almost three-quarters of the bench warrants served on Black people in St. Louis were for traffic violations, such as driving on a suspended license or without valid insurance. Other studies have shown that Black people are disproportionately the targets of traffic stops—creating in effect a closed loop of bias that many critics argue amounts to systemic racism.
“Although officers in some jurisdictions have a level of discretion, they’re often compelled by law to enforce these warrants, even without new charges,” commented Eric Bond, policy director of the Data Collaborative.
“The racial disparities both in the issuance and enforcement of these warrants should be of concern to law enforcement, courts, policymakers and the public.”
Advocates of justice reform argue that the use of criminal warrants to arrest individuals for minor offenses that could be otherwise handled as civil summons is a poor use of police officers’ time.
“Warrants cannot be left out of the criminal justice reform conversation,” said Jeremy Travis, executive vice president of criminal justice at Arnold Ventures.
In a companion study, the Data Collaborative found a significant decline in criminal summonses issued by the New York Police Department last year, following 2017 municipal reforms which mandated moving minor nonviolent offenses out of the criminal code, and reducing the number of warrants issued for failure to appear for a criminal summons.
The number of criminal summons dropped to 72,314 in 2019, compared to 541,862 in 2003—representing an 87 percent decline, the study said.
But echoing the St. Louis-Louisville studies, the researchers found that despite the decline, young Black New Yorkers, aged 18-24 were still disproportionately targeted with criminal summonses and bench warrants for failure to appear.
The majority of the cases involved marijuana possession, which researchers said was likely the result of the city’s decision to reform its drug laws by ending arrests for small quantities of pot.