"Fugitive Safe Surrender" - US Marshals in churches

9 years ago

Is it a brilliant idea, or is it disturbing? Does the image of an armed marshal standing beneath the crucifix trouble you, or is there a way to see beyond that to a larger good? Is it an encroachment of the state, notably the police, into the church?Or is it an extension of the sanctuary movement?

The US Marshal’s office has begun a cooperative program with churches in urban areas in about a dozen cities (with dozens more coming on board soon) called “Fugitive Safe Surrender” where anyone with an outstanding warrant, specifically for a non-violent crime, can come on designated days to a church wherein will be assembled courts, processing areas, clerks, and marshals. The goal is that everyone should be safe – the police safe from assault, the criminals safe from assault. Fugitives are told that their turning themselves in will be looked upon favorably in deliberations. Processing time is cut from days or weeks or months into hours. Over 4,000 people with active warrants turned themselves in during the launch in the first five cities alone. Some had court dates established for the future. Some went to jail. Some went home, free.

The state of NJ has barred this program on the grounds that it does not want court proceedings going on in a church, and also that it feels it may represent the court as siding with the prosecutor.

The website of the US Marshals’ Office says:

Fugitives often hide their identities, either to avoid detection or to further their criminal behavior. They live in constant fear of arrest, and out of the mainstream of their own communities, supporting themselves by: (1) continued non-violent criminal activity (e.g., drugs, prostitution or theft); (2) non-criminal work where they are paid “under the table” and have no health care or other benefits; or (3) as a financial burden for employed, law-abiding family members. In all of these instances, fugitive status creates a broad range of burdens and dangers for the fugitives themselves, their families, and the community. For the thousands of fugitives across America who have no history of violence, Fugitive Safe Surrender offers a unique opportunity to take their first and most crucial step toward community re-entry.

The Prevention Works Blog describes the history of this program:

A couple of years ago, a U.S. Marshal from Ohio by the name of Peter Elliot knew that desperate people committed desperate acts and sometimes those acts resulted in disastrous consequences. At the same time, he believed that fugitives wanted for nonviolent crimes deserved a second chance, although they might be fearful of turning themselves over to authorities. It was this line of thinking that led Marshal Elliot to the Fugitive Safe Surrender concept, a strategy that encourages fugitives with outstanding warrants to turn themselves in peaceably. In 2005, the concept became a national program, and since then about 4,000 people have surrendered themselves peacefully in cities such as Phoenix, Indianapolis, Cleveland, Akron, and Nashville.
Inspired primarily by the tragic shooting death of a Cleveland police officer over a parole violation, the Fugitive Safe Surrender program temporarily transforms a neighborhood church into a courthouse to allow for a neutral and more comfortable setting for incoming fugitives. Of the approximately 1.2 million people with outstanding warrants in the United States, about half are wanted for nonviolent crimes, and it is those fugitives that the program aims to attract. Many are wanted simply because of a missed court date.

The New Salem Missionary Baptist Church has been a site for Fugitive Safe Surrender. Its leader, Pastor Frank Ray said that :

201 Poplar [the police station] is a threat to most of them. And the reason is that you can go there, and what they did here in 30 minutes or an hour, two hours, it may take three days. That you can go there and surrender yourself—it may be three days before they'll even hear your case, and you're going to be stuck in prison for that many days, and some people have even gotten lost in the system.

Odgie in Welcome to my Outlet says:

I think that this is a perfect example of Christian social action. No lobbying or protesting, no forming political action committees, just using our available resources (such as buildings) to promote peace and safety, one life at a time. Fugitive Safe Surrender is a government program, but it seems significant to me that the turnout was so good at church buildings. For the rest of their lives, the fugitives who surrendered themselves will think of church buildings as a place of safety and sanctuary. Isn’t that what we want?

I find myself going back and forth in how I feel about this. I think it is important that the church be seen as a sanctuary for people, a safe place where no harm can come. But actually holding the business of the state inside it makes me uneasy.

On the other hand, I’ve lived in and near NY long enough to know that a police station is not always the best place for even an innocent person, and that the bureaucracy can take forever. And people from the lowest economic rungs of the cities can and do get lost or harmed in the process.

So yes, I want people to be safe – both the police and the citizens. And if the church can be a safe haven, I want that, too. But part of me still feels unsettled, uneasy, as though Big Brother won part of this one.

Chime in here, folks -- how does this effort strike you?

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