BOSTON — Nearly 400,000 people are wanted by Massachusetts courts for offenses dating back half a century, as the state's backlog of outstanding arrest warrants continues to grow.
There were 390,383 outstanding warrants last year, some originally issued by state courts as far back as 1970, according to data obtained from the state Executive Office of the Trial Court.
That's roughly one warrant for every 18 Massachusetts residents.
More than half of those, or 209,217, are "default" warrants which can be for minor offenses such as a failure to show up for a court arraignment or to respond to a summons for jury duty, or a probation violation.
While state officials say they've worked to clear the backlog, the number of people wanted by law enforcement has exploded in recent years, from 9,771 in 2010 to 26,223 in 2018, according to the data.
Mark Leahy, executive director of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association, said law enforcement over the years has wrestled with myriad proposals to reduce the backlog, including discussion of an amnesty program that would allow people to get rid of non-violent arrest warrants.
"But it seems like anything they've tried has never really worked, and it typically comes down to a lack of people to go out and do it," he said.
Leahy said police go after the most violent wanted criminals, but police departments often don't have the manpower and resources to track down subjects with outstanding warrants for lesser offenses.
"There's still plenty of other violent criminals out there who aren't on the state police's most-wanted list but that should still be dealt with," he said.
Legal experts say the onus is typically on an individual to figure out if there's a warrant for their arrest. Sometimes people go years without knowing they're wanted.
"They get pulled over for a traffic violation and end up in handcuffs," said Peter Elikann, a Boston-based criminal defense attorney. "And if it's a weekend, you're likely to spend it in jail."
Elikann said he gets calls from out-of-state residents who want to clear up a minor warrant from years ago, and courts are generally lenient toward people who come forward.
"The judges will appreciate the fact that someone took responsibility and walked into court to face the music, rather than waiting until they get arrested," he said. "The vast majority of people know if they have an outstanding warrant, especially if they didn't show up in court after getting a summons."
Outstanding warrants, even for minor offenses, never expire.
Data provided by the state didn't include a breakdown of the offenses or which communities issued warrants for the individuals.
The Trial Court points out that some wanted individuals cannot be located because they may be serving jail time in other states, have been deported, or moved out of state.
Courts have worked with district attorneys over the years to reduce the backlog, but that doesn't appear to have reduced the number of warrants statewide.
While the state's website allows people to search their own criminal records and whether someone is in prison or a convicted sex offender, there's no search engine for outstanding warrants.
Law firms and private investigators offer their services to help check, but they charge a fee for every courthouse they search.
Some states, including Washington and Alaska, have online portals where anyone can search to see if they are wanted by law enforcement.
Leahy said the state needs to do something to reduce the backlog, or it will just continue to grow.
"We need to bring together cops, prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges to try to figure out what to do about it," he said. "Because this problem isn't going away on its own."
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for The Salem News and its sister newspapers and websites. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wanted: Outstanding Massachusetts Warrants 2010-2018
Total statewide: 390,383 (1970-2018)
Source: Massachusetts Executive Office of the Trial Court