The San Francisco criminal courts recently tossed out approximately 66,000 arrest warrants issued by local judges for defendants who failed to appear in court on quality of life crimes over the last 5 years. Generally, minor crimes such as urinating on a sidewalk, or being drunk in public, are characterized as quality of life crimes and punished by fines rather than jail.
However, San Francisco's justices have seen that the local homeless population, who cannot afford the fines, overwhelmingly commit these quality of life crimes. Although the San Francisco court has dropped the outstanding bench warrants for these, the charges/crimes have not been dropped.
What's a Bench Warrant?
A bench warrant is an arrest warrant that gets issued by a judge, most commonly for failing to appear in court when summoned. When a bench warrant is issued for failing to appear in court, law enforcement are notified and requested to arrest the individual so they can be brought before the court. Then, on top of the charges that person was originally facing, the failure to appear can land a person a few extra nights in jail.
Even minor crimes, including unpaid traffic citations, can end up with a bench warrant being issued if they are ignored.
Only in San Francisco
Although failing to appear for court is a serious offense, in San Francisco, the judges have seen homeless offenders being disproportionately affected. Because homeless offenders generally cannot pay the fines, when the court discovers that a fine was not paid by the deadline, a notice to appear in court gets issued. If a homeless person does not have a current mailing address on file, then they will likely not receive the notice to appear, and thus they will have a bench warrant issued for a failing to appear. Logistically, that then becomes a short stay in jail because of an unpaid fine.
To combat this problem, the San Francisco court stopped issuing bench warrants for these types of crimes last year, and recommended police departments refer offenders to treatment programs. Police are concerned about the court's new position leading to an increase in these quality of life crimes.
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