Failure to Appear arrests need reform, advocates say

Failure to Appear arrests need reform, advocates say

BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - Rhonda Faye Mitchell was released from prison earlier this year and has been trying to move on with her life. She works two housekeeping jobs in Montgomery, about 60 hours a week, but has to ride her bike, walk or pay a cab to get there.

Mitchell doesn’t yet have a driver’s license because there’s a Failure to Appear (FTA) warrant for her arrest that was issued more than a decade ago for an unresolved traffic ticket.

“I’m trying to build on the foundation that I have, because I lost everything," Mitchell said.

She found out about the warrant when she went to the Montgomery DMV, but when she called the small city in Jefferson County that issued the warrant, she was told she needed to come to court to settle the matter. The problem is, Mitchell doesn’t have transportation to get there and is afraid she’ll end up back in jail because of the warrant. Without an ID, she can’t purchase a car or open a bank account. Mitchell feels like the system has her in a paralyzing bind.

Rhonda Faye Mitchell hasn't gotten her driver's license because of an FTA from 16 years ago.
Rhonda Faye Mitchell hasn't gotten her driver's license because of an FTA from 16 years ago. ((Source: Alabama Appleseed))

“The system is set up for you to fail,” she said. “I know at this point a lot of people would be discouraged and give up. I want to function properly in society, but it’s hard to do that.”

Mitchell’s circumstance is not unique. A recent report by Alabama Appleseed Center of Law and Justice included FTA warrants as part of a larger problem of court fees and fines that are hurting Alabamians and undermining public safety. The group surveyed close to 1000 Alabamians with court debt and detailed the compounding and hopeless dynamic that can unfold as a result in people’s lives. The report found in 2016, more Alabamians were arrested for Failure to Appear than any other offense.

Leah Nelson, one of the authors of the Appleseed report, said FTAs place an added layer of fear on people who already feel stressed about the amount of money that they owe the courts. The report cited fear of arrest, lack of transportation and a poor notification system as reasons many people miss court dates and end up with an FTA on their record.

“As long as we have a system where people are charged money that they cannot pay, we’re going to have people miss payments and very likely miss hearings about their missed payments and end up with FTAs," said Nelson.

An analysis of jail data by the Justice Collaborative Engagement Project revealed more than one-third of the people booked into the Jefferson County Jail in July were there for an FTA warrant. Reform advocates believe FTAs place a burden on a criminal justice system that is already stretched thin.

"We hire police to protect us and the resources that go into tracking people down for failing to appear and then processing them through the system and keeping them in jail, there are better uses for those resources,” said Nelson.

Rhonda Faye Mitchell served over a decade in prison for a murder conviction in 2004. The FTA warrant against her was issued while she was already incarcerated.

“I’m not a career criminal," she said. "I got caught up in a domestic situation and had to protect myself and my child.”

Mitchell is currently living in a Montgomery halfway house and working to pay her restitution and $40 a month in “probation fees.” She has connected with a Birmingham attorney who she hopes can help her settle the FTA so she can finally put the past behind her.

“Reoffending for me is not an option,” she said. "I’m really hoping I can get this straightened out. I’m working toward my goals and purpose, but right now I just really need my license.”

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