Bring back Fugitive Safe Surrender

Our view: Program allowing fugitives to peacefully turn themselves in should return

March 09, 2011

The first time the Fugitive Safe Surrender program was tried in Baltimore, it worked. Last June, 987 people with outstanding warrants peacefully turned themselves in over four days at a satellite court set up adjacent to a West Baltimore church. A small percentage were arrested, but the vast majority of offenders — most of them nonviolent — had the charges against them resolved.

Despite the fact that an original source of support, the U.S. Marshals Service, announced recently that it no longer has funding for the program, Fugitive Safe Surrender should not die. The experience of both the courts and the community with the program last year should enable Baltimore to handle the program without the marshals' help, and perhaps to do so in a less expensive way.

Almost everyone who participated in last summer's event seemed satisfied by the outcome. A dent, albeit a modest one, had been made in the backlog of some of the 40,000 outstanding regional warrants that clog the judicial system. Law enforcement officers — who know that pursued fugitives can resort to desperate acts with tragic consequences — were pleased that these people came in willingly and peacefully. Many of the fugitives were relieved that their troubles with the law had been squared. Advertised as a program for nonviolent offenders with warrants from Baltimore City and Baltimore County, it drew a variety of offenders — some felons, some with warrants from other jurisdictions. In about 15 percent to 20 percent of the cases, the warrants were no longer valid. Some people who turned themselves in went to jail. It was not amnesty, but it was straightforward and relatively speedy justice

The idea of having fugitives show up on the grounds of a church rather than at the courthouse came from Peter J. Elliott, the U.S. marshal for the Northern District of Ohio, who started the Fugitive Safe Surrender program in Cleveland in 2005. Churches, he believes, have a bond of trust with many members of the community that courthouses don't. Research seems to bear him out.

Seventy-five percent of the fugitives who turned themselves in at Safe Surrender programs around the country said they did so because the operation was set up in or near a church. The standing of the churches in the communities helped convince the fugitives that the program was not a sting that would automatically toss them into jail but rather would treat them fairly, according to Daniel Flannery, a professor of public health at Kent State University who has studied Safe Surrender programs in 19 cities. There is a big difference, Mr. Flannery observed, between walking into a church with your family members to turn yourself in and being pulled out of your car for a traffic violation, then handcuffed when outstanding warrants are discovered.

The program produced a carry-over of goodwill, evidenced by the behavior of the fugitives who have first turned themselves in at a church, and then — because of the crush of business — were given vouchers to appear at a traditional courtroom. In Baltimore, for instance, when 110 fugitives were told that there was not enough time to hear their cases at the courtrooms set up near the New Metropolitan Baptist Church and that they should show up at District Court at a future date, all but one subsequently appeared. Nationally, some 90 percent of the Safe Surrender fugitives referred to another court have made their scheduled appearances.

Organizing a Fugitive Safe Surrender event is no small task. The Wednesday through Saturday event in Baltimore was preceded by more than a year of planning meetings, according to Kimberly Barranco, executive director of the Baltimore City Criminal Justice Coordinating Council. The cast of players — judges, prosecutors, public offenders, courthouse workers, probation and law enforcement officers — was so large, according to John R. Hargrove Jr., administrative judge for District Court, that the meetings had to be moved to War Memorial Plaza. The cost of these four-day sessions held around the country run from $100,000 to $200,000, according to Mr. Flannery.

While the funds contributed by U.S. marshals will be missed, that should not stop the program from continuing. New Jersey and Ohio have continued staging Fugitive Safe Surrender programs without funds from the marshals. The three in New Jersey have processed 10,000 fugitives and cleared 40,000 warrants. Organizers in New Jersey even tapped some federal stimulus dollars, in addition to state funds.

This is a program with a clear record of benefits to the courts, law enforcement and the community. It is regrettable that the U.S. Marshal's Office has stopped contributing funds to it. But the marshals did help get the model up and running, and the experience of the Baltimore area's criminal justice community in putting on the event the first time should make it easier to do so again. It's up to state and local governments, perhaps with some creative grant writing, to keep it going. Now that the program has a good reputation in the community, it might be conducted, at lower cost, at a courthouse. Wherever it is held, another Fugitive Safe Surrender effort would be good for Baltimore.

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