Throughout the month of April, people with outstanding warrants for misdemeanor charges in the Little Rock District Court will have the opportunity to have those charges dismissed. This is under a leniency court program overseen by Judges Melanie Martin and Mark Leverett. The program is a way to get people in court and removing the possibility of arrest.
You can read the transcript of the entire interview below.
KUAR’s Sarah Kellogg: Okay so tell me just a little bit about how the leniency courts will work during the month of April.
Judge Mark Leverett: In general, we will provide an opportunity for citizens who have outstanding warrants for either failure to pay, failure to comply, or failure to appear, to appear in our courts without the...I guess the angst of being arrested for those outstanding warrants. We will clean up from an administrative standpoint the outstanding warrants and then allow them an opportunity to get into compliance with whatever the underlying reason is, that the caused the warrant to begin with.
Judge Melanie Martin: It’s a really good way for people who may be scared to take care of some outstanding warrants. I think people are naturally nervous when they come to court and stand before a judge. So we are doing all we can to relieve angst like Judge Leverett said. When people come into court and clear up these outstanding warrants, you see a lot for failure to appear, or failure to make fine payments, or being in compliance with the court and this is just a really good way to encourage people to come in and take care of it... where they don't have to be scared about going to jail because our our goal is to help people and get them going in the right direction again.
KUAR: So is this the first time the court has done something like this?
Leverett: For us it's not. Our court, we've done an amnesty court probably a couple of years where we have people with outstanding parking violations come in during the Thanksgiving season, bring in canned goods in exchange for the fine amounts on those parking tickets. We then donated those to a local food bank. So we've done something like this before. This is a little different. Same concept, but a little different.
Martin: This year, Judge Leverett and I chatted and decided it’d be a good idea to combine leniency court with both of our courts, and kind of, provide more of a wider net to let people know they can come in and take care of any outstanding issues they may have.
Leverett: What it doesn't do is excuse whatever the conduct is. So this is not, you know, you come in, we forgive all your sins and you walk away clean. It just gives the citizen an opportunity to remove the outstanding warrant, which as Judge Martin says, causes quite a bit of fear with people if they think they're gonna come in and they're gonna get arrested. So the goal is to get them in, get whatever the issues are taken care of and get them back on the right track. We get our records in order and kind of cleaned up and it's a win-win for everyone.
Martin: It is and you know when we discussed this before too. If they know they have outstanding warrants, sometimes nationally, they're scared to drive, or go back and forth to work because there's always that fear. So our goal in doing this is to take care of that and allow people to move forward and get in compliance with the courts.
KUAR: And are there plans to maybe to do this again in the future? Maybe a once a year kind of thing? How often do you think it'll happen?
Leverett: I think that's a good idea. It's something that we’ll certainly discuss further after we kinda see how this one goes, but it's certainly something that’s worth consideration and discussion and I think you will see it again.
KUAR: Who would qualify to participate in this program?
Martin: Anyone who has, and these are misdemeanors, so anyone that has outstanding failure to appears, they didn't show up for court. Any failure to make fine payments, to get them back in and in compliance or starting perhaps a new payment plan. If we have some contempt of court, this is where we as judges along with the staff, but perhaps someone has not been in compliance with the rules of probation or what not. This is to get them lined back up with probation. So anybody with an outstanding warrant out of Little Rock District Court of course, so that's the criminal court and that's environmental court. This is not traffic offenses. So these are criminal and environmental so anybody can. And certainly they can call that number of our senior probation officer that's Natalie Short, (501) 371-4725.
KUAR: And just for my edification and background, what kind of issues does environmental court take care of?
Leverett: Any and all city ordinance violations in Little Rock. So, premise violations, zoning violations, animal abuse, neglect violations...I also handle juvenile curfew cases. So it's a wide range of city, or anything that's in the city ordinance that you can violate would come into our court.
Martin: Very busy. He's got a lot going on, different things there.
KUAR: Sounds like it. And so with the, so they would have originally charged with a misdemeanor and then any additional failure to appear, that’s when, it has to be a misdemeanor.
Martin: Yes, yes. So perhaps people would have charges and they don't show up to court the first time on a misdemeanor, or they've fallen behind on some fine payments or perhaps not doing what they need to be doing on probation and get those folks back in.
KUAR: And who would not qualify for the program?
Martin: Felonies definitely would not.
Leverett: Right, they would not.
Martin: Traffic of course. We discussed earlier.
Leverett: So any misdemeanor, any city ordinance violation that has a failure to appear that is pending, that person can come in and take advantage of this amnesty program.
Martin: And they can call this number beforehand too, to see what they have outstanding and we’ll route it over to Judge Leverett’s court or my court to let them know before they come in, what they do have outstanding. And they'll be able to visit with someone from our court staffs, that'll get them lined up and then they'll see one of us.
KUAR: And kind of, you did touch on this a little bit...Why is it important to have something like this for for citizens?
Leverett: It's important because the the end goal is compliance. If it's paying the fine, if it's performing community service, whatever it might be, the end goal is compliance. Well, what's preventing compliance in many cases, is fear if you have the outstanding warrant. So we're removing the fear factor, to get them in, to get them in compliance. So that's the beauty of the program, people who are fearful of coming into court, you remove the fear, bring them in get them in compliance, everyone's happy.
Martin: Judge Leverett and I see this in our courts all the time. Two people will appear on outstanding warrants and routinely if they show up, it goes a long way with the court that people take that step to come in and like I say, get going in the right direction. So I think a lot of people, you know, you think about being pulled over in the middle of the night and having that warrant outstanding for you and the fear of going to jail. This takes that away and and hopefully we'll get them in during daytime hours where they can clear up any issues they may have had.
KUAR: So we’re going to switch gears just a little bit. So what are some other resources or programs that you think should be in Arkansas to help those charged with crimes or going through the court system? Leverett: I think it's different for both of our courts. Our courts are, just from a subject matter standpoint just handle different things. From my perspective I have citizens in my court who are typically socio-economically depressed, I guess it's a good way to put it and so I think probably, state federal funds that help them get into compliance. A lot of the citizens that I have in my court are of those who have houses that are dilapidated and they can't get them fixed because they're typically on fixed income and may be disabled or whatever. So outside funding resources would help people in my court, but wouldn't necessarily have anything to do with that what happens in criminal courts. For me, that's what would help the citizens that are in my court.
Martin: I think both of us actually see a lot of the same issues in our courts. I mean, not only is this a leniency situation here, but also when we talk about steering people in the right direction too, we have resources available to even refer people if they want, to substance abuse programs, working with the city and workforce services, mental health issues that we see. A lot of homelessness we see. Judge Leverett and I see a lot of that right now. But our goal when people come in is not only to get them in compliance, but also if we can reach out and help people to get moving again in the way that would benefit them and the city, this is a great time to have contact with them because there are so many resources available there that we work with on a daily basis.
KUAR: What's missing program wise?
Leverett: That’s a good question, maybe the $64,000 question. I guess if we knew what was missing, we’d plug it in and it wouldn’t be missing anymore. Having a list of of resources for us and we’ve tried to compile a list that will, kind of, plug people in when they come in to give them a laundry list of people that they can call. There is a homeless liaison that works for the city who has given us a list of resources that he gives people that are on the street. We have adapted that, brought it into our court so when we have people who’ve been charged with soliciting for funds or whatever else, we can give them a resource to help them get off the street, to find something that helps them from a career standpoint, a skills standpoint. If they need a place to stay temporarily or whatnot, it gets the citizens off the street because we assume that they aren’t doing this because this is their chosen lot in life. They’re doing it out of necessity and so if our court can help them get to move from point A to point B. then that's what we feel like we should be doing.
Martin: And I think too that at the misdemeanor level too, you see so many first offenders not the felony level and it's a great place for first time offenders or even anybody that needs help to come in and be referred immediately to these resources that we have not only in probation staff here in criminal court, but also the work that Mark does and also working with the city too. So I mean, that kind of the entry level misdemeanor, we have a chance to really try and shape people's lives hopefully, and neither one of us want people sitting in jail. That doesn't do the city or anybody any good. If we can get people help the first time they come into the court system and continue to monitor them and work with them and form relationships.
KUAR: Just two more questions, is there any particular kind of program you would want... any new programs you want to launch or are you just kind of like open to... I don't know just something similar...
Martin: I think we talk about domestic violence do first, but I'll let you speak.
Leverett: One of the things that I'm seeing more and more often are kids who have...curfew violations and it sounds nominal, sounds benign, but I know that those curfew violations...if they're skipping school that's typically symptomatic of something else that's going on. So we’ll place kids on probation where’s it’s necessary. Monitor grades, monitor conduct in school and we've been able to partner with third party sources like the OK program that’s run by Sergeant Willie Davis, Little Rock Police Department and others, who are providing help to these kids who oftentimes come from single parent homes, mom may be working two jobs and the kid is just kind of drifting and it's a great opportunity for us to catch the drifters, set a standard for them academically and from the standpoint of their conduct and get them going back in the right direction. So that's probably one of the things that that we are really focused on is helping our juveniles. [That] helps the community and gives us, you know, a brighter future so if we can't help them, we're really in trouble.
Martin: We have obviously different issues. We always talk about one thing, that Judge Leverett and I have been discussing, along with a couple other judges too is the need for more domestic violence type, I would not say court intervening, but, domestic violence is such a big issue here in Little Rock that those first time offenders on misdemeanor domestic batteries, if the courts can get in and help and I'm not talking just from a victim standpoint, but a suspect defendant too, for therapy or available domestic violence classes. We've been in talks now about trying to move towards perhaps a domestic violence court or something that centered in that. So there are a lot of near programs out there that we are currently working on and in discussions about that'll better our citizens and do what we can.
KUAR: And then, just a clarifying question that I just thought of. Those who qualify to go to the court... is it Pulaski County or is it only the Little Rock area? Leverett: If they have outstanding warrants in either of our courts. So no matter where they come from, if they have a warrant in Judge Martin's court or in in my court then they would qualify.
Martin: Yes, our two courts here and charges that stemmed from Little Rock District Court First and Third divisions. Although I will say that other courts have been in Pulaski County and north of the river too. I know that those judges have participated in a certain leniency or amnesty type courts on their own, but this for us was a good opportunity join together and let the community know this is what we ought to do. Social media is great about getting the word out so.
KUAR: Is there anything else you'd like to add about the program that you wish I would have asked?
Martin: I think you probably have the information, but folks can call that number, that’s (501) 371-4725 or also come in, in the mornings from 8:00 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. What we do then is get you on the docket or whatnot. So we’d encourage anybody that wants to take care of these warrants, now is the time. And we are doing it the whole month of April. So someone doesn’t have to go one day or on a Saturday or whatnot. So any time they'd like to come in during those hours, we’ll get them moving.
KUAR: Is there an estimated number of people you're expecting or just kind of wait and see?
Leverett: I don't know. We got a flood of people that came in with the parking tickets and were really thrilled with the amount of food we were able to donate to the food bank. It was so gratifying. So no, we don't know.
Martin: Well the more exposure we get in letting people know that it's out there through social media and passing along the word. I know that both our staffs are ready to go and and if that means we need to work through the night or however long, we'll do that. So we're ready and excited about seeing as many people as we can.