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In A Church Basement, Chipping Away At A Mountain Of Minor Crime Warrants

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Clients hoping to get old warrants cleared wait in line to see a public defender in Brooklyn on Saturday. Their cases were heard in a makeshift courtroom in a church basement.

They aren't the sort of crimes that make headlines, but they've caused a big problem in New York City. There are some 1.2 million outstanding arrest warrants in the city's five boroughs — most for very minor crimes like drinking in public, or being in a park after it closes.

But, however minor the crime, if someone is caught with an outstanding warrant, he or she can be arrested on the spot.

So this weekend, Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson is trying a strategy to clear up many New Yorkers' criminal records — and to clear some of his office's backlog. At a one-day event hosted in a church basement Saturday, hundreds of people turned out to get their judgments rendered, hoping to get a clean slate.

Among them was George Taylor, a 57-year-old man wearing jeans and a checked polo shirt. Hat in his hands, he stood behind a folding table with his public defender to receive his verdict.

His charge, disorderly conduct, was pretty typical. Some of the other charges were for things like having open containers of alcohol, urinating in public or being in a park after sundown.

And while there was no judge's bench, no jury box and no state seal, the judgments carried the same weight. Kings County Supreme Court Judge Cenceria Edwards, presiding from a makeshift bench covered with a black table cloth, rendered Taylor's verdict:

"The matter is dismissed, sir. Good luck," she said, stamping his documents and tossing them in a wire basket.

And with that, nine years of worrying were over.

"Every time you're in the park or something, you know, you're worried about getting arrested," Taylor says. "You might be drinking a beer, something like that — only, because you got a warrant, they're going to take you to jail."

Thompson, the DA, says the idea is to let the police and the courts focus on real criminals.

"Someone who walked their dog without a leash years ago and got a summons, and either forgot about the court appearance or could not make it on that one day — I don't believe that person should be taken in handcuffs, arrested and brought to the criminal courts and put in a cell with someone who might have committed a sexual assault or engaged in gun violence," he says.

Dawn Ryan, a public defender in Brooklyn, says that clearing out old warrants is a good way for her clients to get on with life — to "be able to then go on, apply for jobs, go to school, drive cars, without worry that the police may stop them and incarcerate them because of these warrants."

She says it's too bad that she and her co-workers can't clear out all warrants. They can't help with traffic violations, for example, or tickets issued by the transit police.

But the bigger problem is how many outstanding warrants there are in the city. Saturday was just a drop in the bucket.

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, who represents part of Brooklyn and Queens, says police in the city are still much too tough — and that today's event is only dealing with one part of the problem.

"The district attorney's initiative Begin Again is helping to address the back end of that type of unnecessary aggressive policing, but we also need front-end reform," he says.

At a similar event earlier this summer, the judge cleared out about 700 warrants.

At that rate, it would take more than a thousand of these events to clear the docket completely.

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