Friday, November 19, 1999
Warrant amnesty offered for 1 day
BY JANE PRENDERGAST
The Cincinnati Enquirer
COVINGTON Kenton County offers something different Saturday to thousands of people wanted by the law temporary amnesty.
Sheriff Chuck Korzenborn invites anyone on a list of nearly 8,000 outstanding arrest warrants in the county to show up at the justice center. Most who do will get a new court date, thereby clearing the outstanding warrant. Some could go directly to jail.
Either way, he said, turning yourself in has to be better than suffering an embarrassing arrest at home or work.
No matter if we have one, 100 or a thousand, he said, it'll be a success for Kenton County residents.
Backlogs of unserved arrest warrants are a problem for law-enforcement departments everywhere more than 50,000 are outstanding in Hamilton County. Judges issue piles of new warrants every day.
In Kenton County, though, the issue stirred controversy 31/2 years ago after a wanted man remained free and killed his wife. Because Donald Colston was a paraplegic confined to a wheelchair, the case was particularly troublesome and left authorities scrambling to explain why they were unable to find a man who could barely leave his house.
More than 9,000 unserved warrants were outstanding at the time Sandra Colston was shot dead in 1996. Now, after more attention to the problem and a summer effort to purge the oldest and most incomplete warrants, the list is a little shorter: 7,972 as of a week ago. It's still as thick, however, as the Northern Kentucky Yellow Pages.
Judges issue 500 to 550 warrants a month, compared with 450 to 500 served in the same time period, said Kenton County Police Chief Mike Browning.
Warrants clog computers all over Kentucky. In Jefferson County, officials frustrated by their list of more than 70,000 decided a year ago to sort through it carefully. A deputy clerk found many impossible to serve because of fake addresses, antiquated record-keeping and the division of responsibility for warrant service among so many law-enforcement agencies.
But she also found some people officers could have found 966 already behind bars, 438 for people on probation or parole. Another 859 warrants were found for people who had died.
Mr. Korzenborn promised during his election campaign last year that he would attack the backlog. That was a departure from previous administrations' philosophies. Former Sheriff Bill Steenken took a lot of heat for his flat-out refusal to make a special effort. Mr. Steenken was correct, however, that state law does not require the sheriff to serve warrants.
That's another problem the law says any Kentucky peace officer can do the job, not that they must. The heat landed on Mr. Steenken because officials perceived his office as the primary warrant server and because sheriffs in other counties do it as a matter of course.
Local officials hoped Gov. Paul Patton's 1998 crime bill would resolve the issue for good by making it a law that a specific agency serve warrants. But the General Assembly didn't pass such a law. It did set aside $5 million for a statewide warrants database that would become a one-stop spot for all warrants to be collected. It's still in the works.
Kenton County has seen some improvements in warrant service since Mrs. Colston's death. The county police department's fugitive unit of two officers has served 1,803 warrants since its beginning in March, 1997. Sheriff's deputies have served 895 warrants so far this year.
In July, Kenton and Campbell counties' warrants were combined in the warrants database, allowing officers to check for any outstanding ones in either county. Before this summer, a Covington officer could have stopped a person wanted in Campbell County but not known it. Boone County's warrants will be added soon.
The massive list is better-kept now, too. Fewer are entered lacking identifiers things like age, sex or address. Before, an officer might stop somone but not be able to tell if he was the correct person because many warrants were incomplete.
County officers also compile a weekly Top 10 list, which runs Saturdays in The Enquirer. More than 380 Top 10 fugitives have been arrested since the unit started 21/2 years ago.
Yet the list continues to grow, leaving officials still looking for other ways to alleviate the problem. A state subcommittee studying warrants meets today to talk more about other options for judges, including things like putting holders on a defendant's car title. Another idea: holders on fishing and hunting licenses.
You can do it for pennies on the dollar compared to what we can pay an officer to get out there and knock on doors, said Chief Browning, a subcommittee member.
The sheriff, who already has added a 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. shift largely for warrant service, also promises more new steps after Saturday's amnesty day.
In my view, it's our duty to set an example and help other police agencies as much as we can, Sheriff Korzenborn said. We'll do whatever we have to do to help solve this problem.
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