Black People in Ypsilanti are Disproportionately Arrested on Bench Warrants

Part 1: Data Trends

Black men and women in Ypsilanti accounted for 63% (1,179 of 1,869)[1] of all Washtenaw County arrests in 2014 on “failure to appear” bench warrants, even though they make up less than 2% of the county’s total population.[2] Black men in Ypsilanti alone accounted for over 51% of all arrests on “failure to appear” bench warrants in the county.

Bench warrants are warrants for arrest issued by a judge (i.e., from the bench), usually for “failure to appear.” In Washtenaw County, these typically result from a failure to appear at a misdemeanor or felony hearing. In some circumstances, repeated failure to timely pay a fine can also result in a “failure to appear” bench warrant. Aside from “failure to appear,” a bench warrant might also be issued for offenses like perjury or contempt of court, but these are so rare that in the remainder of this report, the shorter term “bench warrant” will be used to refer specifically to “failure to appear” bench warrants.

The issuance of a bench warrant is at the discretion of the judge, who may accept an excuse for absence from a representing attorney or may reset the hearing date if a possible change of address could have resulted in a failure to receive notice.[3] Failure to appear is charged as a misdemeanor “Obstruction of Justice” that in Michigan can carry penalties of up to a year in jail and up to $1,000 in fines, as well as forfeiture of any bond paid.[4] More details are needed from the county courts to understand policies and practices around issuing bench warrants.

It bears emphasizing at the outset that the crime of “failure to appear” in itself poses no threat to public safety. A complete audit would be required to determine the nature of the underlying charges from which the warrants arise. However, the impact of an arrest on the arrestee/defendant can be very significant, sometimes resulting in trauma, lost income, lost employment, childcare problems, etc. In part 2 of this study, we will continue researching the human impact of failure to appear arrests in the community.

If you, or someone you know, has been arrested in Washtenaw County on a failure to appear bench warrant, please contact us at raw1@riseup.net.

White citizens in Ypsilanti also experienced higher than the county average rate of arrests on bench warrants: 355, or 19% of the county total, despite making up less than 4% of the county population. However, in Ypsilanti nearly four times as many Black men as white men, and twice as many Black women as white women, were arrested on a bench warrant (Table 1 and 2). Hispanic ethnicity and multi-racial identities are not recorded for arrests in Michigan.

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