Photo: Kathy McGregor
A crowd of people seeking legal counsel filled the parking lot and front hall of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church by 9 a.m. Thursday, Jan. 6.
The church, along with The Bail Project and Arkansas Justice Reform Coalition, hosted a felony warrant amnesty clinic to provide an opportunity for those with warrants to meet with Washington County public defenders in a safe space. In all, 71 people along with their friends and families, attended the event for support and resources that could help them continue working, caring for their families, and living their lives.
The hope is that those conversations will help resolve warrants, unclog courts, and limit or entirely prevent jail time.
Reverend Adelyn Tyler, curate at St. Paul’s, said it was clear from the start that the event could only be a positive thing for Washington County.
“When the idea was presented, it was obvious to many of us at St. Paul’s that we wanted to be a part of this important community event,” said Reverend Adelyn Tyler, Curate at St. Paul’s. “Having an outstanding warrant causes many people to live in constant fear of any interaction with law enforcement.”
Something as small as being pulled over for a broken tail light can result in an arrest because of a warrant, thus placing people in jails. With backups in the courts, someone might spend two or three months in jail just waiting for trial.
Tyler said in that time, people can lose their jobs, lose access to their families and children, and potentially lose their housing and their belongings.
“The ripple effects on a person’s life are innumerable,” she said. “Because of these same concerns, people may not call law enforcement when they are in need of support and protection. Many are unduly burdened by this weight on their shoulders.”
Photo: Kathy McGregor
In addition to the attorneys present on Thursday, community organizations set up tables at the event to provide education and access to relevant resources. Dress for Success, Fayetteville Adult Education, Ozark Guidance Center, and Goodwill Industries all shared information for the community.
Along with the counseling, those in attendance were offered coffee, cookies, and sandwiches.
“No matter who we are and what we are facing, reminders of our shared humanity in the form of snacks can be healing and comforting,” Tyler said.
Conversations with community members at the warrant clinic shared the same theme of fear.
“Their warrants and the current state of our justice system leave people with constant fear of arrest,” said Tyler. “Many even entered our church timidly wondering if they would be taken into custody on site for naming aloud their crimes.”
Stepping into that type of space can be a vulnerable feeling, she said, but the possibilities that come from such an event are wide.
One woman leaving the clinic said she felt like the event provided her with some resources to help get out of a tough situation she’s facing instead of digging an even deeper hole for herself.
A few others said it felt better to at least speak to someone face to face rather than on the phone.
“An opportunity to speak to public defenders and prosecutors in a safe, protected environment can be truly life changing,” said Tyler.
The exact effects and benefits are yet to be seen, but the atmosphere tells a story. Many who arrived looking frightened and timid left appearing lighter while offering their thanks.