LOS ANGELES – In a dramatic move designed to ease the challenges facing the region’s poor and homeless people, Los Angeles officials said Wednesday that they were voiding nearly 2 million minor citations and warrants that had kept people trapped in the court system.
The announcement is designed to fix a system that has led to many people being repeatedly ticketed and arrested for minor infractions, leading to growing fines and warrants. For homeless people, that has created roadblocks to accessing housing and services.
Nationally, big cities have been trying to move away from citations and infractions that according to critics “nickel and dime” those living on the streets into jail cells. Until now in Los Angeles, eliminating citations had been done on a limited basis.
A Los Angeles Times data analysis in 2016 found a vicious cycle of homeless arrests. Los Angeles has more than a dozen “quality-of-life” laws – restricting sleeping on the sidewalk, living in a car or low-level drug possession, for example – that police usually enforce with a citation. The tickets typically start out at less than $100, but often top $300 once court fees are added. Tickets pile up, and people go to jail.
In a joint announcement Wednesday, Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer, Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey and LAPD Chief Michel Moore said they wanted to “unclog” the court system.
The plan will save the courts money, they said, and help the LAPD focus on getting the worst criminals off the streets instead of having officers spend crucial time on minor infractions involving homeless people.
“We’re taking action with our law enforcement partners today,” Feuer said in a combined statement, “to focus on the most important public safety issues, help address root causes of poverty and homelessness.”
In separate motions to the Los Angeles Superior Court, Feuer and Lacey moved to suspend fines and fees for minor pedestrian, quality-of-life and moving violations.
Feuer recalled and quashed nearly 150,000 city warrants, and moved to dismiss about 800,000 pending years-old infraction citations. Lacey took action to dismiss 248,000 county warrants and dismiss roughly 900,000 pending infraction citations – more than half of which are older than 10 years, she said.
Gary Blasi, a retired University of California, Los Angeles professor who specializes in researching homelessness, said erasing warrants and citations will have significant impact on people who can see a bench warrant spiral into a situation that prevents them from getting a job or housing.
L.A. officials “saw the reality they were spending a lot of resources,” Blasi said. “If you’re going to spend police resources on misdemeanors, it makes sense to prioritize.”
Wednesday’s announcement comes more than a year after Moore publicly proposed what he called a “radical solution” to ease the pressure on the courts, jails and police and end a cycle that sees those sleeping on the streets repeatedly jailed and subject to collection orders for fines.
This summer, Moore told the Los Angeles Police Commission that the plan to remedy the situation was in the pipeline. At the time, a spokesman for Feuer declined to reveal any details.
On Wednesday, Moore said in a statement that “these are individuals who have not had contact with law enforcement for more than half a decade and whose only offense was a low-level, nonviolent crime and failure to appear in court.”
A Times analysis in 2018, found the LAPD made more 14,000 arrests of homeless people in the city in 2016 – up 31% over five years before. In San Francisco, judges four years ago stopped issuing bench warrants for no-show defendants and ultimately eliminated tens of thousands of outstanding warrants from the last decade.
Carol Sobel, an attorney who has repeatedly won legal victories against the city of L.A. over homelessness issues, said officials’ actions don’t go far enough. “They should have wiped everything off the books up until now ... all the failure-to-appears at a minimum.”
Pete White, executive director of the skid row advocacy group Los Angeles Community Action Network, agreed. He called the action by the city and county a “great thing,” but said it’s long overdue.
White said more needs to be done to help the poor and homeless who face “debtors prisons” because of the minor infractions.
“There’s got to be some other attention paid to all the damage these warrants made,” he said. “The tickets started out as infractions and turned into jailable offenses.”
In January, the results of the annual homeless population count stunned elected leaders across the county. The annual point-in-time count, delivered to the Board of Supervisors, put the number of homeless people just shy of 59,000 countywide. Within the city of Los Angeles, the number soared to more than 36,000, a 16% increase.