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James Ussery did not waver when asked why, in the past, he had shirked court-ordered community service.

"Lazy," the 25-year-old said, succinctly. "Didn't want to do it."

But that was before he had a warrant out for his arrest.

Ussery is trying to find a warehouse job. Once he learned of the warrant, issued on a misdemeanor out of Little Rock District Court, he put off applying until he resolved the issue.

So when Ussery heard about an "amnesty" program, he thought, "I need to take care of my business."

Ussery was one of more than 55 people who have shown up at the district courthouse, 600 W. Markham St., between 8 and 8:30 a.m. this month to take part in the program.

Overseen by Judge Hugh Finkelstein, amnesty court allows people with outstanding warrants out of the criminal division of Little Rock District Court to appear without fear of being arrested.

Those who qualify won't be given additional fines, costs or penalties. A public defender will assist the person in bringing the case before Finkelstein.

The program runs Monday through Friday until the end of February.

Ussery, who appeared in court Thursday, was not absolved of his responsibilities. He was given a suspended jail sentence and community service, online records show.

Judge Alice Lightle, who held the seat before Finkelstein, offered a similar program in the past. Finkelstein decided to make it a month long to give people more days to show up.

One benefit is resolving outstanding cases, Finkelstein said. There are almost 4,000 active warrants out in his court alone, he said.

A judge can issue a warrant when a person fails to appear for a hearing, fails to pay a court-mandated payment or fails to comply with a court order, like community service.

A warrant tells law enforcement authorities to arrest that person and take him before the court. Warrants can result in jail time or a person's license getting suspended, as well as other penalties.

On misdemeanor warrants, that person often is not sought by police. Rather, the person ends up in custody if he encounters a police officer during a traffic stop or some other relatively benign interaction.

Once a warrant is activated, it is "human nature" for some people "to avoid situations where they're not sure what's going to happen," Finkelstein said.

Amnesty court is an effort to clear some room on a lengthy docket as well as resolve the person's underlying offense, he said.

Aside from Finkelstein, other district judges around Pulaski County regularly oversee some sort of amnesty program.

Last month, Little Rock District Judge Vic Fleming presided over "leniency court" for traffic violations, though people with criminal issues also were helped.

Fleming signed a letter to inform the presiding judge in their cases that the people had shown up, were experiencing legal hardships and were requesting "leniency in the disposition of any charges."

Pulaski County District Judge Wayne Gruber has presided over "homeless court" at least once a year for 15 years.

Gruber said his court has a tremendous number of people who fail to appear for court. They do so "for any number of reasons, some of which are legit, some of which may not be legit," he said.

A legitimate reason would be if a person was hospitalized or being treated at an addiction center on a court date, Gruber said.

Gruber said some people won't show up to court for fear they will be held on warrants out of two or three other courts. By ditching court, additional fees can be tacked on.

"It compounds itself, sometimes," he said.

And in homeless court, a lot of the people Gruber sees "are just really destitute," he said.

They have little to no money, therefore no way of ever paying fines they owe, he said. He takes "dire life circumstances" into account, he said.

However, Gruber added, "You don't just want to willy-nilly dismiss cases when other people are showing up for court and paying their fines."

As part of Little Rock's amnesty program, Finkelstein can make decisions on the fines and fees people haven't paid.

That possible loss of funds balances out with the benefit of shortening the criminal docket and getting people "back on their feet," Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola said.

Little Rock "does not collect a lot of money out of criminal court, to begin with," he added.

Three district courts -- criminal, traffic and environmental -- produce revenue for the city.

For the first six months of 2016 -- the only time frame available -- the criminal court brought in $80,625.

That amount was down in 2017. About $60,085 was generated during those same six months.

For comparison, traffic court generated between eight and ten times those amounts for the same time frame.

Robert Holitik, a lawyer who used to be an assistant Little Rock attorney, said he's seen people get into a rut where they're unable to pay fees owed on top of the original fine.

It's a cycle that's difficult to break without intervention, he said.

One man who said he needed that intervention was Leroy Langley. He'd made some payments on a fine but failed to pay all of it.

"I just kinda got in a bind, paying my bills," Langley told Finkelstein. "I didn't mean for it to go this far."

After Langley got a call about the failure-to-pay warrant, his probation officer told him about the amnesty program.

He left his McGehee home at 5 a.m. Friday and drove more than 100 miles to resolve the issue.

After consulting with a public defender, Langley approached Finkelstein. The judge recalled the warrant and converted the fine so it could be paid in installments.

With a smile, Langley uttered thanks and left the courtroom to give a court cashier the $60 in his pocket.

Metro on 02/19/2018

Print Headline: Mercy meted out in judge's LR courtroom


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  • joedog
    February 19, 2018 at 9:38 a.m.

    These are good, smart judges and this is a good idea. A win-win solution.

    February 19, 2018 at 9:28 p.m.

    This will help many people, It is a great Idea and I am so Glad we have some Sensible Judges that want to help People. Thanks FOR THIS HELP.