Area amnesty event gives minor offenders a second chance

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by ALAN SCHER ZAGIER

Associated Press

Posted on August 7, 2013 at 7:00 PM

 FERGUSON, Mo. (AP) -- For some, a traffic ticket is little more than a minor hassle, an annoying inconvenience that lightens the wallet or triggers higher car insurance premiums.

But for those living on the economic margins, the consequences can be far more serious, with such minor criminal violations leading to a spiral of debt, unpaid obligations, unemployment and arrest.

Seeking to stem that cycle, the Better Family Life community group reached out to St. Louis area police, prosecutors  and court clerks with a deal: We’ll help round up misdemeanor scofflaws in return for limited amnesty that allows offenders to avoid jail time while still honoring their obligations to the criminal justice system.

“We saw example after example of how these small infractions blocked people from the services they needed, and prevented them from stabilizing their lives,” said community organizer James Clark, a Better Family Life vice president.

Now in its seventh year, the amnesty program has grown to include 43 local governments, from the city of St. Louis—the initial participating municipality—to the tiny villages such as Bellerive Acres and Velda Village Hills.  Clark said the program has also drawn the attention of officials in Atlanta and Kansas City looking to possible start their own amnesty efforts. This year, the program was broadened to include warrants for unpaid child support.

New Mexico recently started a similar statewide program, with other efforts found in Wayne County, Mich. and  Madison County, Ill., across the Mississippi River from St. Louis.

The program is not a “get out of jail free card,” Clark emphasized. Instead, participants receive vouchers they can take to court, which along with a comparatively nominal payment—usually $100-- allow them to schedule future court dates on their own rather than getting hauled to jail if stopped for an unrelated traffic violation.

“Nothing is wiped clean,” Clark said. “Amnesty gives them a way to engage the court without getting arrested.”

By midmorning Wednesday, hundreds of low-level offenders had shown up at St. Louis Community College’s Florissant Valley campus for their vouchers, the line at times stretching out the gym’s entrance.  Organizers counted 2,500 participants at a similar event four days earlier at the community college’s Meramec campus. A third and final session is scheduled for Saturday at the school’s Forest Park campus.

India Hearn, 45, said she came to resolve two tickets for driving without insurance and not registering her car. The Howard University graduate said she’s been out of a job  for nine months after previously working as a substitute teacher. The outstanding warrants make the search for a decent job daunting.

“I’ve been unemployed, so I wasn’t able to pay the tickets,” she said. “It makes it very difficult when you’re looking for a job and they do a(criminal) background check.”

The vouchers aren’t permanent, with most expiring by the end of the month or early September and some valid for just a single day next week.

After signing up for amnesty from arrest, participants were also encouraged to sign up as organ donors and offered enrollment information from the college, an event sponsor. They were also warned to keep the voucher and accompanying court referral information handy should trouble arise if they are pulled over

“Show the officer that you’re trying to take care of your business,” Clark told the group. “It may keep you from going to jail.”

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