More than 10,000 people have outstanding fines in Topeka’s Municipal Court, from $10 seatbelt infractions to $1,250 for DUI convictions. At least 3,000 of them have outstanding arrest warrants for missing their court dates. The number of outstanding arrest warrants is a symptom to a problem the Department of Neighborhood Relations and Topeka Municipal Court hope to address through an education campaign this fall: The incorrect assumptions that either Municipal Court isn’t to be taken seriously or that showing up at court, without the means to pay fines, results in automatic jail time.
“As a result, people have been avoiding their court dates for even minor violations,” said Administrative Judge Jason Geier. “When a court date is missed, I have to issue a warrant for their arrest. Arrest can lead to a myriad of problems, not the least of which being loss of a job and driver’s license. If they had come to court, we could have worked with them, from payment plans and methods to adjusted fines.”
In an effort to improve education about those options, Neighborhood Relations and Judge Geier have started and will continue a public outreach campaign in Topeka. Through the rest of September, Geier will present at four different community centers.
These efforts will culminate on Oct. 14 for Clean Slate Day, which will involve pulling arrest warrants – in exchange for agreeing on a new court date – and expediting the expungement process.
Expungements, clearing a conviction from a person’s record, involve meeting certain requirements, such as staying out of trouble for one to 10 years. For most crimes, the requirement is three years. Only one crime dealt with in Topeka Municipal Court can’t be expunged: Driving a commercial vehicle while intoxicated.
Currently, the City is seeking corporate and community partners to assist with Clean Slate Day. This program applies only for cases in Topeka Municipal Court, which mostly involve traffic violations and misdemeanor crimes.
“Clean Slate Day is not about being soft-on-crime,” Geier said. “People still will have to pay the consequences for their actions. This is a community-safety issue, so our police officers can focus on stopping violent criminals. This day is about providing opportunities and returning dignity and respect to those in our community who have been overlooked.”
People who attend the event will have access to community resources, including free legal advice and job-search assistance. The goal is to hold two Clean Slate Days each year. More details about Clean Slate Day will be forthcoming as Oct. 14 approaches.
“I am impressed by Judge Geier’s initiative to take his message out to the community, and provide a day where they can get some needed help – in the courtroom and out,” said City Manager Jim Colson. “This truly is a one-of-a-kind event, and I’m looking forward to seeing it develop into a bi-annual program.”
The outreach campaign began Aug. 5, when the City invited prosecutors, defense attorneys and various agencies in the community for a stakeholders’ presentation. Since then, Geier has given four presentations to Topeka Housing Authority properties and one NIA, attracting more than 80 people to a message that is critical to their success.
“My message to people is, ‘You don’t need to be afraid to come to court. I will work with you. You have options,’” Geier said.
Geier already has seen results from this first push: Several in attendance either have or said they would come to court to look into their outstanding warrants after hearing his presentation.
“The Judge’s presentations have been a wonderful opportunity for our residents,” said Sophie George, president and CEO of the Topeka Housing Authority. “The Judge has been caring and down-to-earth, coming to our residents wanting to help.”
For Geier, the education campaign and Clean Slate Day is personal.
“I care about Topeka, and I want Topeka to be successful,” Geier said. “I want the citizens of Topeka to be successful. Because I was born and raised here. Because I am raising my family here. I want to live in a thriving, empowered Topeka. And I think I can help make that change with some education and opportunities for my fellow Topekans.”