New Jersey's acting attorney general wants to make a change to police arrest practices in the state, starting with anyone who has a warrant out for a low-level offense.
Police "in most instances" should no longer arrest people with municipal court bench warrants with bail amounts of $500 or less, Acting Attorney General Matthew Platkin announced last week.
Bench warrants are most often issued to individuals who fail to appear for a municipal court hearing or pay money the owe. Those finding themselves before the municipal court have often violated traffic laws, local ordinances or committed low-level offenses like shoplifting, Platkin explained in his announcement.
"If law enforcement encounters an individual with such a warrant, they must arrest that person, even if the underlying offense was a traffic ticket or a similarly minor offense. Not only is the possibility of arrest at any moment disruptive to a person’s life, it can also heighten the tension surrounding interactions with law enforcement, increasing the possibility of more volatile encounters," Platkin's statement goes on.
Instead of arrest an individual with a bench warrant, Platkin is asking officers to issue them a new court date. This rule applies to anyone with a bench warrant for $500 or less.
According to the attorney general's office, there remain hundreds of thousands of outstanding bench warrants in New Jersey. Another motivator behind this change in arrest policy, Platkin says, is to cut down on the "significant law enforcement time and resources" taken up by processing such arrests.
The announcement of the new statewide policy came with supportive statements from the state troopers' union, the ACLU of New Jersey, the head of the state police, in addition to other statewide groups fighting for racial justice.
"This directive will lift burdens on those who would otherwise be jailed for their inability to pay, it will free up the court system with backlogs and continue the momentum of reducing the mass incarceration in New Jersey, an “All Around Win” on this one," Cuqui Rivera, criminal justice chair of the Latino Action Network, said.
Jeanne LoCicero, legal director of the ACLU chapter in New Jersey, said that "Ending arrests for bench warrants in these cases helps move us away from an overly harsh criminal legal system where a burdensome process amounts to punishment, especially for people who can’t afford fines or bail."
This story has been updated to correct the spelling of the attorney general's name throughout.