Pubdate: Thu, 24 June 1999
Source: San Francisco Chronicle (CA)
Page: A1 - Front Page
Copyright: 1999 San Francisco Chronicle
Author: Kenneth Howe, Chronicle Staff Writer
Note: Chronicle staff writer Jaxon Van Derbeken contributed to this report.


Chronicle Series Prompts Plan To Get Tough On Scofflaws

California Attorney General Bill Lockyer and other top officials yesterday
called for major reforms to address the state's backlog of 2.5 million
unserved warrants.

Prompted by a Chronicle series published earlier this week, Lockyer
outlined an ambitious, three-point plan to deal with the hundreds of
thousands of fugitives, bail jumpers and scofflaws who prowl California's

"Serving warrants is a local problem, but the state can assist in many
ways," Lockyer said.

The attorney general said he had discussed with Governor Gray Davis' office
a package of reforms that called for the state to:

- -- Withhold public benefits, such as license renewals and welfare checks,
from people with outstanding warrants.

- -- Use federal funding to upgrade the state's aging computer system that
tracks warrants.

- -- Generate millions of dollars by acting as the collection agent for
counties in cases where warrants could be converted into civil fines.

"We need to collect the money from those who owe, and use those funds to
track down the serious offenders," said Lockyer.

Meanwhile, Assemblyman Mike Honda, D-San Jose, said he wants to "look for
ways to triage the warrants" in order to deal with the most serious cases

"Where we've really got to focus is on the serious felons," said Honda,
chairman of the Assembly's Public Safety Committee. And San Francisco
Police Chief Fred Lau said he hopes to arrange regional police chief
meetings to coordinate efforts to track fugitives and scofflaws.

"We want to explore whether we can work together on issues like (Fugitive
Recovery Enforcement Teams)," Lau said.

In a two-part series, The Chronicle found that California has become
swamped with millions of unserved warrants. Most of them are for
misdemeanor offenses, but tens of thousands are for violent crimes,
including more than 2,600 outstanding homicide warrants.

The huge reservoir of warrants has accumulated because law enforcement
agencies, strapped for cash and pressed to focus on other priorities, have
largely stopped serving warrants except in the most serious offenses.

But experts say the state's short-sighted policy threatens public safety
and costs the government hundreds of millions of dollars in uncollected fines.

By default, the state has fallen back on what critics say is an ineffective
"chance encounter" strategy. Felony and serious misdemeanor warrants are
entered into a computer system so that when law officers encounter suspects
they can check them for warrants and finally serve them.

But the chance encounter method often lets those with warrants slip away.
Fugitives may not come in contact with the law for years. Moreover, the
computer system that holds outstanding warrants is old and its data are
woefully incomplete.

Lockyer, who made the backlog of unserved warrants an issue in his campaign
for office last year, said the state needs to aggressively pursue warrants.
By using legislation that allows judges to turn low-level warrants into
fines, the state can collect money that can, in turn, be used to modernize
the state's computer systems.

The attorney general also is looking to federal money, which is part of an
appropriation bill in Congress, to fund further improvements in the state's
warrant tracking system.

Lockyer said that ultimately he wants a system in which officers in their
squad cars can immediately display information on people who have
outstanding warrants on their beat.

"It's shocking that California treats people with outstanding parking
tickets harsher than they treat people with outstanding warrants," said Bob
Hines, chief of staff for Assemblyman Jim Cunneen, R-San Jose.

In the state Senate, Richard Rainey, R-Walnut Creek, said he intends to
introduce legislation to start a grant program so that cities and counties
can set up special warrant units.

"The problem has been a lack of priority, a lack of funding and a lack of
manpower," said Rainey, vice chairman of the Senate's Public Safety Committee.

The grant program, under the Office of Criminal Justice Planning, would
fund pilot programs throughout the state.

"We need to set up special units that focus on nothing else but warrants,"
he said.

Lau said he wants to assign more officers to the city's FugitiveRecovery
Enforcement Team, currently a two-officer detail that goes after warrants

"We want to do larger FRET operations on a more frequent basis," he said.

Lau suggested that the night enforcement detail may join ranks with more
officers from local station houses to run the stepped up warrant operations.

"A lot of the troops are now coming up with suggestions about how to deal
with warrant concerns," Lau said. 

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