Initiative helps clear minor offenses from Bronxites’ slates
Upbeat music blared from a DJ’s speakers in front of the Mount Hope Community Center on Sept. 16 as Bronxites walked in to have warrants for minor offenses cleared by a judge.
The event was the first of its kind in the Bronx. District Attorney Darcel Clark designed the program, called Another Chance, to resolve open cases for minor offenses such as having open containers of alcohol in public.
“This is ‘Another Chance’ to clear your record and remove an obstacle in your life,” Clark said in a press release. “If you have had a minor brush with the law such as drinking alcohol in public, trespassing, littering or unlawful possession of marijuana or any other quality-of-life offense and did not address it, you have a warrant. If you do not resolve these warrants, they can adversely affect many aspects of your life: they will show up when you apply for citizenship, for a job, or for an apartment in public housing. Even more significantly, you are subject to arrest and jail.”
Residents who showed up reported to Legal Aid attorneys at a table at the entrance. After meeting with an attorney, they were taken inside to appear before a judge, who dismissed most of the more than 300 cases that were considered. Respondents were then guided out a side door and through a barricaded area where a resource fair was set up.
Elizabeth Felber, a supervising attorney at the Legal Aid Society, said that more than 3,000 letters were sent. “People were afraid they were going to be arrested, but that’s not what this is about,” she said, adding the event drew enthusiastic responses. “It’s supposed to be to build better community relations and not have it be so adversarial.”
“One thing that happens is they’re just treated nicely in court, which doesn’t always happen,” said Felber, adding that the court staff made “a concerted effort to be respectful and kind — which you’d think would be standard operating procedure.”
Felber pointed out the case of one respondent from the group, a single father who was applying to be a firefighter but needed to resolve a warrant first. She said it was indicative of the value of the program.
Felber said she hoped the turnout would be better when the next event is held, once word spreads that it isn’t a trap.
Fritz Jean, executive director of the nonprofit Mount Hope Housing Company, which provides housing services to the community, praised the program as an efficient way to resolve offenses that could tie up law enforcement resources that are needed elsewhere.
“When it comes to fighting crime, it probably benefits everyone to take off the table those individuals who do not belong in the process, and I think this program targets those individuals,” Jean said. He added that the friendly interaction between law enforcement and people with warrants was a good thing.
“One of the concepts that I really push to our tenant population and the community is that it sort of demystifies the court process,” he said.
Carlos Aguirre, 27, of Mott Haven, said he received a letter about an open warrant for a summons he received a year ago. “I wasn’t even going to come but I was just like forget it, I’ll just try it,” he said. “I’m glad I did.”
Aguirre said the court staff was friendly and the experience was positive. “I think it benefits a lot of people and saves a lot of time,” he said.