A Senate proposal aims to help police catch more criminals who flee across state lines. But will it work?
The criminal justice system's persistent failure to aggressively pursue fugitives wanted for crimes ranging from robbery to rape is a national problem. Some believe the number eluding law enforcement authorities around the nation has now swelled into the hundreds of thousands.
Over the past several years, investigative journalists–most prominently in Philadelphia and St. Louis–have called attention to the issue. Congress may finally be waking up.
But now, the question is whether a $200 million fix proposed by two prominent U.S. Senators will go far enough.
The Fugitive Information Networked Database Act of 2010 (FIND) proposed this month by Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.), chairman of the Senate subcommittee on crime and drugs, and co-sponsored by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) would largely provide federal funds to help state and local jurisdictions extradite fugitives captured by authorities in other states.
Critics complain that some states have taken an “out of sight, out of mind” attitude toward fugitives, refusing to pick them up when they’re too far away. The states counter that their strapped budgets are to blame. Specter suggests, however, that money could be saved when states team up with the U.S. Marshals Service to transport captured suspects across state lines.
The rest of the proposed five-year program would help jurisdictions log warrants into a national database, the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), which is administered by the FBI. Inexplicably, about half of the nation’s 2.7 million outstanding warrants are missing from the database. The money would be used to upgrade computer systems and hire more people to enter the warrants. Jurisdictions will be required to make regular public reports when suspects are released before trials, and report on how many fail to appear at their court dates.
Band-Aid or Cure?
Under the Specter plan, the actual amount available for each state to spend works out to an average $1 million. “I suspect it’s going to be more of a Band-Aid than a cure,” says Lt. Jeff Silva, of the New Bedford, Massachussetts police force.
But Silva predicts it will have an impact on his state, where a St. Louis Post-Dispatch investigation found in 2008 found that police omitted nearly 80 percent of their violent felony warrants from the national database.
It might, for instance, have allowed police to catch up with Darrin Bates, who disappeared from view shortly after he was accused of rape in Massachussetts. In 2006, Bates turned up in Georgia, where he was jailed for driving a stolen car. Since Masssachussetts police had not filed a warrant, Georgia authorities found nothing in the FBI database that would have connected him to the out-of- state crime, and they labeled him a low-risk prisoner. He soon escaped. Shortly afterwards, according to Georgia authorities, he allegedly forced his way into an 88-year-old woman's home and beat her until she was blinded in one eye.
Silva believes the proposed Senate fix could help prevent similar scenarios. “I’m sure I echo the sentiment of law enforcement throughout the country that any money is better than no money,” he said, adding that even if it could get local authorities talking about the problem, it would be a “step in the right direction.”
Another potential challenge is that the bill wouldn’t require states who receive money to do much of anything. That includes fixing the most obvious breakdown: the failure to input warrants into NCIC.
Philadelphia law enforcement authorities, for example, have for several years failed to enter warrants for suspect who skip court appearances. If local police departments and courts are skipping this step– a relatively simple matter of data input–will more money make a difference?
“It’s really surprising that in this country we don’t have this kind of connection already,” says John Goldkamp, chair of the criminal justice department at Temple University, who closely tracks criminal justice in Philadelphia.
He noted that the federal government needs to find a way to encourage states to work together.”You don’t mandate, you don’t impose,” he explains. “But you support the cooperative building of a cross-state system that allows states to share information.”
Goldkamp said the efforts will be effective if they are combined with attempts to reform the bail system to prevent more criminal defendants from becoming fugitives.”There are two parts to fixing the problem: cleaning up the past and preventing (another crop of fugitives) from building,” he said.
The failure of some states refuse to pick up even fugitives wanted for violent crimes, if they’re arrested several states away, can have ugly consequences.
In another example reported by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the federal Social Security Administration notified Virginia authorities in 2000 that fugitive Felipe Fowlkes was living in New York state. Fowlkes, with convictions for assault and sex crimes, was wanted on charges of felony theft and voter fraud. But Virginia was unwilling to send an officer 500 miles north to pick up Fowlkes.
His benefits were cut off in April 2000 because of the two outstanding warrants. Three weeks later, he was caught attempting to rob a woman in New York, and as sentenced to three years in prison.
Because Virginia had not filed a request on NCIC for authorities to hold Fowlkes after his prison term expired, he was released when his term was up in 2003. Six weeks later, he raped a teenage girl in Massachusetts.
Last year, the Philadelphia Inquirer found that while many fugitives eventually resurface and show up in court, charges are often dropped because victims have given up pursuing cases that have dragged on for years. Witness intimidation pervades the Philadelphia courts, the newspaper found, recounting several cases in which crime victims or witnesses were threatened..
Even if Specter's Senate colleagues can be persuaded to appropriate the money, it wouldn't do much to help jurisdictions that don’t help themselves.
In St. Louis, authorities refuse to issue warrants for thousands of fugitives. While most jurisdictions will issue an arrest warrant for someone who is wanted to answer to a criminal charge, and log that warrant on NCIC, St. Louis authorities won’t take that step. Instead, they put out an alert to local jurisdictions–called a “wanted”–that asks police to pick someone up for questioning. Their reason: the process ensures that the right person is charged.
“What we want is the full investigation finished, or as close to finished as possible, before there’s a warrant application,” St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert P. McCulloch told the Post-Dispatch in 2008. “And that almost always means picking up the guy.” Asked for comment last week, he did not respond.
While the procedure may be defensible, it also ensures that the suspect will escape the arm of the law completely if he can make a convincing case for innocence–and then quickly cross to a neighboring state, where no one may have any record of the charges against him.
With states facing budget crises, and legislatures scrambling to cut spending, the money proposed by Specter may be the best chance to plug the fugitive gap. But reform will also need a culture change at the local level. State and local jurisdictions can keep the public safe by entering data and picking up their fugitives from justice.
Jeremy Kohler is an investigative reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.