Black Voters Matter brings warrant clinics to rural communities

Too often, people accused of minor offenses are incarcerated, a traumatizing hardship that can snowball into disrupting jobs, family, and other obligations. Low-level, non-felony offenses account for about 25% of daily jail populations nationwide. And incarceration rates in rural areas are growing, in part due to the limited resources in rural court systems.

The heavy ramifications of less serious crimes have led RDI-grantee Black Voters Matter to introduce warrant clinics in numerous communities. As Black Voters Matter’s Anza Becnel explained to RDI grantees recently, this innovative approach to processing warrants greatly benefits communities.

“I believe every human being is interested in what’s possible.”

Anza Becnel

The warrant clinics bring people together for a new kind of court system. Prosecutors and judges participate, and the setup leverages the community’s assets to offer a more effective and fairer form of justice.  

The clinics take place on Saturdays, run by volunteers who organize not only legal support, but also music, food, childcare, and a community feel. The clinics give folks the opportunity to resolve warrants for low-level, non-violent offenses with no victims. Through these community-led events, Anza and many supporters give people with warrants the chance to overcome barriers that get in the way of a court appearance, such as transportation, work obligations, and feelings of fear or intimidation. In true community spirit, community elders frequently chip in to support someone who doesn’t have the money to pay their fine. Prosecutors also get assistance clearing their hefty backlogs. Anza reports many people see the upside to using this model, and he’s received support from nearly every court he’s approached with the idea.

Tight-knit communities

Challenges with the criminal justice system span rural and urban spaces, but the assets to tackle these challenges are unique to each locale. Anza is especially excited about chances to establish warrant clinics throughout rural areas, because he sees ample potential for impact in these regions. In small towns where rural clinics have popped up, dramatic ripple effects have followed.

The tight-knit nature of these places, for instance, lays the groundwork for the success of warrant clinics. People with deep interconnectedness can show up for each other in myriad ways–financial, legal, and emotional–throughout legal proceedings. They just need the opportunity to provide community support during the court process. 

In rural communities, Anza said, “the impact is going to carry further.” 

An experimental approach

Anza sees warrant clinics as an experimental approach with substantial room to grow and adapt. One obstacle many face involves the use of fines and fees for municipal revenue, particularly in smaller cities and cities with larger Black populations. These disparities present in addition to the racial disparities in police stops. Anza is prepared to partner with local organizers and officials to address these sorts of barriers.

But to Anza, one of the most important components of the warrant clinic model is the ability for communities to create court for themselves. It’s an opportunity that brings neighbors together as people on each end of the legal system collaborate to improve outcomes. 

“The warrant clinic is created for good people caught in a system that needs to be improved,” he emphasized. “The court system that we know today was created a long time ago by people in power, and it needs to be updated.”