It looks impressive when a judge bangs his gavel and orders someones arrest. Criminals, however, arent fooled. They know the probability that a warrant will ever be served is minimal.
According to an investigative report by the San Francisco Chronicle, more than 2.5 million arrest warrants are currently outstanding in the State of California. Many of the arrest warrants are for misdemeanors, but thousands of arrest warrants for homicide, kidnapping, sexual assault and other serious crimes also languish unserved.
Local, state and federal law enforcement agencies often don't even try to serve warrants. Instead, they ignore the public's right to safety and simply wait until the suspect is arrested for some other crime. More outrageously, many of these suspects are released on their own recognizance time and time again. As a result, multiple arrest warrants for failure to show up at trial are not uncommon.
Even if every arrest warrant is eventually served, a heroic assumption, it will be too late. Thousands of cases are thrown out of court every year because, to be constitutional, arrest warrants must be served within a reasonable amount of time.
The arrest is the first line of defense against crime. If criminals aren't arrested then there is no hope of their ever being punished. What can be done to improve the system? Public outrage is already motivating some politicians to demand that more resources be assigned to serving warrants, but more fundamental changes are needed to set the system straight.
We should immediately privatize the job of serving warrants by paying bounties for serving warrants and when necessary apprehending those served. Crazy idea? Compare Californias system of serving warrants with the private bail system. When a criminal skips bail on a private bail bondsman there are strong incentives for the fugitive to be captured. A private bail bondsman who lets his charges skip town will quickly go out of business. As a result, almost every fugitive who skips town on a bail bondsman is quickly brought back to justice by a bondsmen or a bounty hunter. Not surprisingly, private bail bondsmen have a much higher capture rate than the public bond system.
Private warrant servers would efficiently and quickly bring order to the now out-of-control system. Moreover, privatization need not be expensive. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, nearly 80 percent of the states outstanding warrants have fines attached to them. California can use the recovered fines to offset the cost of the bounties. Furthermore, we should consider charging the cost of the bounty to the person who has skipped their court appearance or failed to visit their parole officer. While this won't work in every case, since many criminals don't have the funds to pay their fines, it should be tried wherever possible.
A privatized system will return us to a normal world in which arrest warrants are taken seriously. Once suspects know a private bounty hunter stands to gain from their arrest, far fewer people will flaunt the system, more fines will be paid on time, suspects will show up for their trials more often and fewer crimes will be committed.
The local, state and federal law enforcement agencies have let the warrant system get out of hand. Why should we trust them to fix the system? A privatized warrant system, modelled on the already well tested bail bondsman and bounty hunter system, holds the most promise for restoring respect to the our system of justice.
Alexander Tabarrok is Senior Fellow for The Independent Institute, Assistant Editor of The Independent Review, and Associate Professor of Economics at George Mason University. He received his Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University, and he has taught at the University of Virginia and Ball State University. Dr. Tabarrok is the editor of The Independent Institute books, Entrepreneurial Economics (Oxford University Press), The Voluntary City (with David Beito and Peter Gordon, University of Michigan Press), and Changing the Guard: Private Prisons and the Control of Crime.
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