Examining Warrant Arrests in Jefferson County, Kentucky: 2006 to 2019

This study on warrant enforcement practices in Jefferson County, Kentucky (“Louisville Metro”) was conducted as part of The Research Network for Misdemeanor Justice (RNMJ), a project of the Data Collaborative for Justice (DCJ), that brings together researchers and local government actors to conduct research on lower-level enforcement practices around the country. The study of warrants grew out of a broader report on lower-level enforcement trends to help assess the role of warrants in lower-level enforcement activities.

In Louisville Metro, courts typically issue “bench warrants” for administrative reasons, including when people fail to appear for court or non-payment of fines and fees. Bench warrants can stem from traffic violations, low-level misdemeanors, and serious felony offenses. People may also be arrested on “fugitive warrants” – warrants that originated in a jurisdiction outside of Louisville Metro (including neighboring jurisdictions).   Once issued, Kentucky revised statute 431.005 mandates that if law enforcement learns an individual has an outstanding bench warrant, they are required to make an arrest.

This study examines police enforcement activities associated with bench warrants and fugitive warrants in Louisville Metro between 2006 and 2019. Local researchers affiliated with the RNMJ conducted a number of different analyses of warrant enforcement, including: (i) the extent to which local arrests involved warrants, (ii) how frequently arrests were being driven by warrant enforcement, (iii) the types of charges people with a warrant were being arrested for, and (iv) racial disparities in warrant enforcement practices.

This report was published in conjunction with another RNMJ report on warrant enforcement in St. Louis, Missouri and, together with that report, forms the basis for a third report that compares and contrasts warrant enforcement in these two jurisdictions.

Key Findings:

  • Overall: The total number of arrests started with 35,389 in 2006, peaked to 40,560 in 2009 and dropped to 27,062; a 24% decline from beginning to end. The largest decline occurred between 2018 and 2019.
    • In 2019, the majority of arrests were for new charges that do not involve a bench or fugitive warrant (59.5%) and 40% involved a warrant. When a warrant was involved, arrests for bench warrants was the most common (19.2%), followed by arrests with new charges and either a bench or a fugitive warrant (16.6%).
  • Racial disparities: There are notable racial disparities for Black people compared to White people for all arrest types. The racial gaps are slightly narrowing, the Black-to-White arrest ratio for bench warrant only arrests declined from 3.89 in 2006 to 3.34 in 2019. This means that Black people were 3.34 times more likely to be arrested for a bench warrant with no other charges in 2019. Similar patterns hold for other arrest types.
    • For both Black and White people, the highest charge associated with the warrant is a misdemeanor, followed by felony charges and violations. There are also racial disparities in bench warrant only arrests. The Black-to- White ratio for misdemeanors dropped from 3.82 in 2006 to 2.94 in 2019.
  • Bench Warrant Clearance: The report also analyzed the number of bench warrant charges that were cleared by arrest. In 2006, there were 10,331 bench warrants cleared, peaking at 20,339 bench warrant charges cleared by arrest in 2013. There was a general decline in charges cleared by arrest between 2013-2017 before a second peak in 2018 at 19,509 charges cleared by arrest, before reaching 16,105 in 2019.
    • Overall, there was a 56% increase in bench warrant charges cleared by arrest between 2006- 2019.