The Columbus Dispatch
It’s bad enough when government fails to respond to warning signs of danger that threaten peril to innocent people.
And it is much worse when one segment of government appears to respond — lulling potential victims into a false sense of security — only to have a weak link break with life-shattering consequences.
That’s the shorthand description of lapses in Ohio’s poor-performing process for handling arrest warrants that leaves far too many individuals open to danger and, in the worst cases, results in deaths that should have been prevented.
Making this scenario even more maddening, if that is possible, is how potential killers have remained free while police lock up otherwise law-abiding citizens who miss a court date for minor infractions that by themselves could not result in jail time.
None of this should happen, and Gov. Mike DeWine is determined to ensure that Ohio doesn’t continue to mishandle open warrants on his watch and thereafter.
In one of the first actions of his new administration, the former prosecutor-turned-governor reacted to a Dispatch investigative series in December that revealed fatal flaws in Ohio’s undisciplined system for issuing and serving arrest warrants ... a deficiency with hundreds of thousands of unserved warrants in Ohio alone, with 5.7 million open warrants in 27 states for which data was available. Some 240,000 cases of unserved warrants were for individuals wanted for violent crimes ranging from domestic violence to murder.
Now DeWine has unveiled a plan for attacking the problem as devised by a 27-member Warrant Task Force he commissioned in January to put Ohio on a path to better manage the issuance and execution of arrest warrants across the spectrum.
The governor is wise to seek not only a more effective plan to keep dangerous individuals from causing harm but also to keep the criminal justice system from victimizing those who want to take care of their legal responsibilities if given clear guidance for doing so.
Creating a Tier 1 list of violent offenses, as DeWine proposes, is a sensible start for prioritizing arrests to prevent tragic outcomes. Warrants for those charged with murder, rape, robbery and domestic violence would be entered into a national database within 48 hours and fugitives would be targeted for arrest wherever they attempt to escape.
At the other end of the spectrum, smarter notification systems would help those charged with minor infractions to pay their fines on time or appear in court to contest charges. Instead of automatically issuing system-clogging warrants for those who fail to appear, judges would have other tools to compel compliance, such as blocking issuance of driver’s licenses.
Both approaches are important and should be implemented as soon as possible.
Obviously, some of these fixes will require a significant financial investment, such as creation of a statewide warrant database similar to Kentucky’s, which cost $2 million to build in 2008.
Law enforcement agencies and courts must also work together to transform old practices and work through any jurisdictional rivalries that could stymie their collective efficiencies.
State legislators should treat DeWine’s proposed reforms with the same care they would to protect their own families. For all of our families, lawmakers must close Ohio’s arrest warrant loopholes.