Topeka Cleans Up Outstanding Court Fines
In the past few years, Topeka, Kansas’ government administrators have engaged residents in new and interesting ways — from providing full, digital access to the city’s spending online to building a follow-worthy Twitter account.
One of their most unexpected outreach efforts involves a group that may be least likely to communicate with the government at all: those past due on paying city fines. Any city’s relationship with people who owe money is a delicate one to handle. Using a number of tools, including Socrata’s storytelling tool Perspectives, Topeka’s team was able to offer a new way to reconnect: Clean Slate Day.
How Clean Slate Day Works
On Clean Slate Day, Topekans are welcomed by the Topeka Municipal Court and given a second chance in front of a judge. Topeka’s city government has held two Clean Slate Days over the past year. These events share its good faith by working to restore the standings of hundreds of residents in Topeka Municipal Court.
In mid-2016, at least 10,000 Topekans had outstanding municipal court fines, and more than 3,000 of those had outstanding arrest warrants for missed court appearances, according to local government officials. For a city with a population of just over 127,000, the numbers were substantial. Yet most of these people were not career criminals. They faced crimes such as unpaid tickets for not wearing a seat belt. No big deal but, if not taken seriously, small infractions can incur very severe penalties over time, says Sherry Schoonover, Topeka’s Deputy IT Director. The longer you put off paying a fine, she says, “the more it just keeps adding up and gets worse over time.”
The first Clean Slate Day was held on October 14, 2016, with Judge Jason Geier presiding and offering opportunities to renegotiate, set up more manageable payment plans, or eliminate outstanding tickets or fines, depending on the severity of the offense. For individuals who qualified, legal counsel and even financial aid resources were made available through donated funds provided by multiple anonymous donors through the Topeka Community Foundation.
The goal for the first day was to help 75 people, but the actual numbers blew estimates away: 370 people attended, 125 had warrants pulled, 20 got expungements, and 60 entered pleas. The DMV was on-site to help 207 drivers and the free legal defense counsel helped 40 people.
Communications to Build Momentum for an Annual Event
Holding this type of event in Topeka Municipal Court offered a way to get certain Topekans engaged with government in a responsible way. As an added bonus, Topeka Municipal Court could close a large amount of outstanding cases at once, clearing up dockets so that local law enforcement is able to focus on more important issues.
When the first Clean Slate Day was announced, there was some skepticism among citizens who suspected the city was setting an elaborate trap, one that was more likely to get someone arrested than get amnesty. Judge Geier did a lot of community outreach, holding community meetings to discuss the goals of Clean Slate Day during the month before the first event. Meanwhile, Schoonover’s team worked on messaging. Using Socrata Perspectives, a tool that allows governments to create narrative web pages that put data in context, the city created a dynamic, informative page to help assure Topekans that the court’s aims were true.
Visits to the page have grown since that first event and visitors can now go there to find a Twitter feed, citizen testimonials, and updated results on the program’s success. Since it was created, the page has received more than 8,000 hits.
“[The Perspectives page] really allowed us to tell a story with a lot of substance.” —Sherry Schoonover, Deputy IT Director for the city of Topeka
“When I put the story together in Perspectives, there was a lot of information we could pull in to tell what the story was about,” Schoonover says. “The tool really allowed us to tell a story with a lot of substance.” For instance, visitors to the website can read about how October’s Clean Slate Day “was supposed to last from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. But when we saw more than 100 people showed up before it started, we knew we would be staying longer.”
The second Clean Slate Day event in May built on the court’s initial success by adding another judge and helping nearly twice as many people as they had seen during the first event. Throughout the day, city officials were there to interview people who were benefiting from the program, and to tweet along with the event.
The city plans to continue to have more Clean Slate Days in the future. While Judge Geier has expressed the desire to preside over at least two per year, he also wants residents to understand that every day can be Clean Slate Day in Topeka. Those who need to talk to the judge, set up a new payment plan, or get a new court date are welcome any day in Topeka Municipal Court.
Los Angeles and Topeka have both had success using Perspectives to communicate with residents. Are you interested in exploring how your government could use Perspectives? Reach out to our team at Socrata. Send us an email. We’d love to talk about what’s possible for you.