Few people were sorry to see 2020 go. The year was marred not only by a deadly pandemic, but by the death of George Floyd, an African American man killed while in police custody. His death spurred nationwide protests of police brutality and racial inequality.
Locally, protesters clashed with Little Rock police at the Arkansas State Capitol a couple of days after Floyd’s killing, while elsewhere in the state a mix of large and small crowds gathered to call for police reform.
A new study of bench warrant enforcement found “substantial racial disparities” in warrant arrests.
It should be noted that the warrants – mostly for non-violent or low-level offenses such as traffic violations – are issued by local judges. Civil rights activists have long made the point that the Black community is disproportionately targeted by police in warrant enforcement.
A study by the Research Network on Misdemeanor Justice at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice looked at warrant enforcement in two places: St. Louis, Missouri and Jefferson County in Kentucky (where the state’s largest city, Louisville, is located).
4 to 1 and 3 to 1
According to the data, in St. Louis, four Black people were arrested in bench warrants for every white person in 2019. In Jefferson County, the ratio was about three to one.
The U.S. Census Bureau says that about 52 percent of Little Rock’s population is White and 42 percent is Black. In St. Louis, about 46 percent of the city’s residents are Black and approximately 46 percent are White. The racial makeup of Kentucky’s Jefferson County is about 77 percent White and 19 percent Black.
Trends in opposite directions
The researchers studied arrest patterns in the two places between 2006 and 2019. They found arrest patterns headed in opposite directions in the two places: in St. Louis, arrests for bench warrants dropped 59 percent during the study period, while in Louisville (Jefferson County), the bench warrant arrest rate soared 73 percent.
Researchers attribute the drop in St. Louis to municipal court reforms there.
The Data Collaborative for Justice oversaw the studies; its director recently said the research shows “that the enforcement of bench warrants for relatively minor offenses is taking up a significant amount of police time and resources, and potentially putting individuals on a path towards further entanglement within the criminal legal system.”
Is money a motivation?
A recent article in The Crime Report (a John Jay College of Criminal Justice publication) pointed that many cities, counties and towns depend on revenue generated by fines for violations of low-level municipal ordinances to keep their budgets afloat. That financial dependence often leads to aggressive warrant enforcement in poor communities – and subsequent tension between those targeted communities and law enforcement.