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LAPD chief proposes a 'radical solution': Eliminate old bench warrants for homeless people

LAPD chief proposes a 'radical solution': Eliminate old bench warrants for homeless people
The streets are lined with tents near East 5th Street and South San Pedro Street in the skid row area of Los Angeles on Feb. 15. (Los Angeles Times)

The Los Angeles Police Department is considering a plan that would allow thousands of homeless people to eliminate old bench warrants as part of a larger effort to reform a system that has created a vicious cycle for those with nowhere to live.

LAPD Chief Michel Moore described the proposal as a “radical solution” to ease the pressure on the court system, jails and police stations, which are being overwhelmed daily with hundreds of people arrested on these warrants.

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Moore said the amnesty ideas would cover only longstanding bench warrants for homeless people who failed to show up in court for minor offenses. He stressed that the LAPD has no plans to change how officers enforce various “quality-of-life” crimes but hoped the shift would result in a more effective, streamlined process for handling these cases.

Some homeless people have piled up multiple warrants, he said, and it doesn’t make sense to keep those on the books.

“People need to obey the law… [but] we have people with 10 citations in the system, some are five or 10 years old,” Moore said in an interview. “What is the point of five or 10 warrants in the system? They are clogging up the system.”

Los Angeles has more than a dozen "quality-of-life" laws — restricting sleeping on the sidewalk, living in a car or low-level drug possession, for example — that police enforce against homeless people, usually with a citation. The tickets themselves typically start out at less than $100, but often top $200 or even $300 once court fees are added.

Tickets mount, and homeless people go to jail for not paying for offenses that warranted only citations.

A Times data analysis published this year showed that the LAPD made 14,000 arrests of homeless people in the city in 2016, a 31% increase over 2011. The rise came as LAPD arrests overall fell 15%. The data sparked new calls for officials to better address how the homeless cycle through the criminal justice system.

(Los Angeles Times)

The bench warrants have been the subject of much debate among homeless advocates and others, with critics arguing that homeless people are not in a position to pay the warrants or show up for regular court appearances.

City and county courts have experimented with small programs to wipe homeless people’s records clean of minor citations if they accept job training, drug and alcohol treatment or other social services and perform community service.

In San Francisco three years ago, judges stopped issuing bench warrants for no-show defendants, ultimately removing nearly 65,000 outstanding warrants issued since 2011.

There are probably hundreds of thousands of such warrants in Los Angeles, said Gita O'Neill, assistant city attorney for homeless issues.

Moore said he was not proposing anything as sweeping as what San Francisco did, but he sees the need for some reforms.

"With newer offenses we need consequences and some restorative justice-type mitigation," he said. "We can't [and] shouldn't simply just do a wholesale wipe" of warrants.

An examination of fourth-quarter 2017 citations showed that 90% of the homeless people who received them failed to appear in court, according to LAPD Cmdr. Dominic Choi. He said such citations, on average, resulted in $445 in fines for the accused. Much of that total charge comes from a plethora of state court fees on top of the initial fine.

Eliminating such citations so far has been done on a limited scale by City Atty. Mike Feuer, who worked with the courts through the Homeless Engagement and Response Team. The program also offers an incentive to individuals who don't want to come in from the streets.

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Choi said the courts saw 617 people sign up and ultimately 338 people participated in the citation elimination program. Nearly 1,000 citations were removed from the rolls. But that’s a tiny portion of the total, and Moore said a more sweeping approach is needed.

Moore stressed that any change in policy would not mean a reduction of enforcement activities by police. He said the department would continue regular patrols in downtown Los Angeles and elsewhere, and respond to community complaints about blight and illegal behavior.

Members of the civilian Police Commission that oversees the Police Department want to see action that curtails the cycle of citations, arrests and jail that Commissioner Cynthia McClain-Hill describes as "an exercise in futility."

"To see the churn … it is not clear the whole thing is really doing any good,” police Commissioner Shane Murphy Goldsmith said at a recent meeting. "The things they are being cited and arrested for [are] largely a consequence of their homelessness."

She said the LAPD is in a tough position as the officers want to be responsive to residents' demand for action because of people's behavior but at the same time know that their actions aren't really changing the outcomes. "It is a crazy system to cite people, send them to court, they don't appear, and they get a warrant, multiple warrants for multiple failures to appear ... and then it all mounts up," Goldsmith said.

Goldsmith, who is president and chief executive of the Liberty Hill Foundation and once managed a homeless shelter, asked the department this year to reduce arrests of homeless people. "We are all struggling to figure out the solutions," she said.

Whether it turns into action, some see Moore’s move as an olive branch.

Gary Blasi, a retired UCLA law professor who studied homelessness extensively, said Moore’s statements are “a step in a positive direction.” Blasi said homeless advocates and the city attorney have come close to ripping up the warrants en masse, but it has never happened.

“There is no rationale for this public policy. They know the people cannot pay the fines and they know if they go to jail, the Sheriff’s Department will release them immediately,” Blasi said.

He said Annie Moody is an extreme example. When The Times wrote about her in 2014, she had been arrested 59 times in six years. Blasi said the arrests for her behavior on a corner of skid row have reached triple digits.

Times staff writer Gale Holland contributed to this report.

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