UMD Law professor Doug Colbert speaks at a conference, Courtesy Baltimore SAO/Twitter

Picture this: A Baltimore police officer stops a man on the street to ask him if he’s seen or knows anything that can police to solve a case. But instead of speaking with the officer, the man runs away.

“I’ve had someone run from me or flee in a car, only to discover that he was running because he didn’t want to face the FTA warrant we had,” Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said today.

Davis shared this experience on Thursday morning at an announcement atthe University of Maryland, Baltimore Community Engagement Center in the Poppleton neighborhood. There, the school’s Access to Justice Criminal Defense Clinic unveiled a new partnership with city police, the sheriff’s department, prosecutors, the judiciary system, public defenders and others that will let defendants have their failure to appear charges vacated in certain cases.

The project, dubbed the FTA Second Chance program, was designed to give people charged with property and drug possession crimes, traffic violations and other nonviolent misdemeanor offenses “an opportunity to return to the legal system,” according to clinic director and UMD Law professor Doug Colbert.

Colbert said as many as 94 percent of offenders charged with a crime in Baltimore show up for their court dates. In the cases where defendants do skip court, “often their reason is a good reason. They feel losing a job, missing school, having day care responsibilities, sometimes illness” preclude them from being able to attend,” he said, adding, “and they don’t have someone else who can stand in for them and explain to the state’s attorney and the judge the reason why they require postponement.”

Students in Colbert’s clinic have been trying to create the program for 18 months. After persistence from their professor, a number of city agencies agreed on the partnership project. It will allow an offender to go to any public defender’s office at a district court and set a new court date without the previous failure to appear charge hanging over them.

Colbert pointed out that situations where officers have to serve a failure to appear warrant at an offender’s home create new dangers for both police and citizens.

Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said at the conference that most of these warrants go unserved anyway, at least until patrol officers interact with the offender by chance. “If they don’t ever have an interaction with the police, they may live their entire lives in fear of being arrested for a non-violent offense that they missed court for,” he said.

State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby noted that people with pending failure to appear warrants often struggle to gain employment or obtain housing. She said this will give those people some freedom to move on.

A flyer for the FTA Second Chance program, Courtesy Baltimore SAO/Twitter

“This is not a forgiveness program, and I want to be clear about that,” Mosby said. “This is a second chance, a second chance at an opportunity for those who have failed to appear in court to have their matters resolved without fear of penalty.”

For prosecutors in particular, ridding the system thousands of such cases will also allow them to focus more on violent offenders, the ones “that need to be off our streets,” Mosby said.

Davis said the city has roughly 35,000 active warrants to be served in Baltimore, about 6,800 of which are for failure to appear cases.

The three-week project will also give police a chance to mend relations with those community members once they can “function in society,” which helps with community policing efforts, Davis said.

The FTA Second Chance Program is available for those charged with failure to appear and any of these designated misdemeanors. The program is being offered at any public defender’s office at district courts on weekdays starting next Monday.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly said the announcement happened at a UMD Law building.

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Ethan McLeod

Ethan McLeod is a freelance reporter in Baltimore. He previously worked as an editor for the Baltimore Business Journal and Baltimore Fishbowl. His work has appeared in Bloomberg CityLab, Next City and...