Ohio officials call for action on unserved arrest warrants

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A flood of open arrest warrants nationwide — including tens of thousands for violent crimes in Ohio — is a public safety threat, Governor-elect Mike DeWine said, and he plans to pursue reforms immediately after he takes office in January.

“It’s a big problem,” DeWine said. “I want to be most focused on violent offenders who can hurt you, me and members of the general public.”

DeWine, currently the state’s attorney general and chief law enforcer, was responding to a four-part investigation published last week by The Dispatch and GateHouse Media that exposed how millions of open arrest warrants, including hundreds of thousands for violent crimes, overwhelm police nationwide.

“What I will do when I am governor is ask my public safety director to put together a group of sheriffs, chiefs of police, county prosecutors, judges, and (court) clerks to read your series of articles as the basis of the discussion and then to come back within 30 days with specific recommendations,” DeWine said.

“One of the things I will ask my head of public safety is: Can we use data better? Can we use all the technology we have today better to locate these people, and to make a decision on priorities.”

In Ohio, The Dispatch found more than 309,000 open warrant cases in courts in the state’s six largest urban counties and the six suburban counties surrounding Columbus. That included more than 23,000 warrants in cases with violent or weapons charges. Police, deputies, U.S. marshals, judges, prosecutors and court clerks all said the system is drowning in warrants and that some means of triaging and pursuing the most dangerous fugitives is needed.

Nationwide, after making requests for warrant records in all 50 states, reporters for The Dispatch and GateHouse Media analyzed 5.7 million open warrant cases in 27 states, finding more than 239,000 cases that included violent or weapons charges. Officials in other states either said they did not keep statewide records, said the warrants were not public records, or would not provide the records in a usable format.

The series is available online at Dispatch.com/wanted.

Among the Dispatch’s findings in Ohio: Local police agencies, including those in Franklin County, often don’t enter warrants — even for violent crimes — into the statewide Law Enforcement Automated Data System, or LEADS. That means people wanted for such crimes as domestic violence and assault might not be arrested because officers outside the jurisdiction where the warrant was issued have no way to know they’re fugitives.

Both DeWine and Ohio Auditor Dave Yost, who takes office as attorney general in January, said a review of LEADS and how agencies enter warrants is necessary.

“One thing that the series pointed out is that sometimes these warrants for violent crimes are not entered,” DeWine said. “So we need to do an analysis and pinpoint where that is a problem geographically, and that, I think, will lead us in to a more informed discussion.”

Said Yost: “What we need to do is to look at the failures in the pipeline and where are the leaks occurring and what is not getting into LEADS. Once we know that, we can design some solutions to bolster that and shore it up. And that is something the attorney general can and should be part of.”

Michigan requires that courts and police agencies enter all warrants into the statewide system, which contains more than a million warrants, according to data the Michigan State Police provided to The Dispatch. In Ohio, as of October, LEADS had just 215,000 open warrants, fewer than the 309,000 open warrants The Dispatch found in just 12 of Ohio’s 88 counties. Only law-enforcement agencies may enter warrants into LEADS.

In Michigan, most courts have computer systems that tie into the state’s Law Enforcement Information System, or LEIN, making it efficient to send warrant information and updates from the court to the state system, said Kevin Collins, who manages LEIN for the Michigan State Police.

“We really try to push when we do our training to get people to understand: You’re not just entering this for your officers, you’re entering this so the whole criminal justice community is aware as a safety issue,” Collins said. Officers need to know whether someone they’ve stopped might fight or flee because they have an open warrant.

Someone needs to standardize how warrants are handled in Ohio and set priorities, said Becky Gaytko, president of the Ohio Crime Prevention Association and an administrator for the Dayton Police Department.

“There is no uniform practice across Ohio or the country for how these outstanding warrants are managed or used as a tool for preventing a crime,” Gaytko said. “Whether it’s a warrant connected to a broken headlight or violent act using a gun, we are trying to use one tool for many different problems. The question is: Can we do something smarter and more efficient to prevent all of us from being crime victims?”

Yost talked about reducing the use of arrest warrants for minor offenses, such as not showing up for court to address a traffic ticket, which the Dispatch investigation identified as the cause in at least 1.2 million warrants nationally, including about 19,000 warrants issued in Franklin County.

Mark Hummer, the presiding judge in Franklin County Municipal Court, said it might be time to try something other than arrest warrants to get the attention of people who don’t show up for court when they receive a summons for minor misdemeanor crimes.

“Maybe we can think of a way to do something other than warrants on minor misdemeanors,” Hummer said.

The municipal court’s judges haven’t met since the series was published, he said, so it’s too soon to say what, if any, changes might be proposed.

For minor offenses, Yost said, “I favor use of collateral sanctions. If you don’t show up for a traffic case, I don’t want you arrested; we have enough people in jail. We don’t have enough cops and don’t have enough jail beds. Let’s cancel your license, and sooner or later you are going to get stopped and try and renew your license or your license plates or your insurance company is going to send you a letter and that’s going to get your attention.”

Meanwhile, the attorney-general-elect said warrants for violent crimes must be a priority.

“The violent offenses — and that includes misdemeanors for domestic violence, assault and such, too — we need to work these, we need to triage these and pay attention to the things that are most important,” Yost said. “One thing that is going to happen is on Jan. 15, the Attorney General’s Office is going to re-join the fugitive task force out of the United States Marshals Service.”

Yost said he wants local police agencies to take the lead on handling warrants because they know best who most needs to be arrested. But he said the Attorney General’s office can help facilitate communication among agencies to ensure that word gets out quickly when officers are looking for fugitives.

As Ohio legislators enter discussions next year on criminal justice reform, DeWine said, how to handle the deluge of warrants should be part of the debate.

“Ultimately, the goal of criminal justice reform is the safety of the public,” DeWine said. “It’s a constant debate about a very important question: Who is likely to harm us?”

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