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Surrendering at Church—to the Cops

A Memphis church welcomes fugitives who come to turn themselves in.

Nineteen-year-old Edacious recently came to New Salem Missionary Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee, but not to worship. Instead, she came to surrender.

There was a warrant for her arrest on marijuana charges and she had come to church to turn herself in. Hundreds of others with outstanding warrants also showed up.

Called Fugitive Safe Surrender, the program is coordinated by the U.S. Justice Department and is the brainchild of Pete Elliott, a member of the U.S. Marshals Service.

"People have asked me why a church, and it's simple," Elliott recently told the PBS program Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly. "Churches give hope."

"I've been in law enforcement going on 25 years now," he said. "I feel the most comfort in my life when I'm at church. I feel the most peace when I'm at church. And I felt that individuals in the community that were wanted were basically no different than me."

A week before the surrenders, Memphis religious leaders and law enforcement officials announced that for four days, fugitives—people wanted by the law for whatever reason—would be allowed to turn themselves in at a well-known church. The church would be staffed with prosecutors, judges and court personnel.

"And most importantly," U.S. Attorney David Kustoff said, "volunteers from New Salem (would be on hand) … to greet people and to welcome them as they come in, so that they come in to an environment that is non-hostile."

Shelby County Sheriff Mark Luttrell said the program would be able to clear up several warrants, "which will make them law-abiding citizens and return them to the community in a productive way and will certainly assist us in law enforcement in clearing up this huge backlog."

Officials estimate there are 37,000 outstanding warrants in Memphis alone. Some 1,500 turned themselves in during the four days of the Memphis event—far more than they sheriff's department could have rounded up over a similar period.

Fugitive Safe Surrender began in Cleveland two years ago. Memphis is the sixth city to try it, and in each case the program has exceeded expectations. At least five other cities are hoping to offer the surrender program.

But the program is not without controversy. A plan to introduce it in New Jersey was blocked because of concerns it would violate church-state separation.

Felony suspects who showed up at New Salem were taken into custody, but most of those turning themselves in were wanted for minor offenses.

A surprising number said that until now, they felt they had no place to surrender. They were wary of the police and sheriff's department and were afraid of going to jail. Many fugitives view the Memphis Justice Building—201 Poplar Street—as a place where people get lost.

"201 Poplar is a threat to most of them," said Frank Ray, pastor of New Salem. "And the reason is that you can go there, and what they did here (at church) 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 got lost in the system."

Those turning themselves in had outstanding warrants for traffic offenses or probation violation, and many said they were doing it to start over, "to get my life back," as one person put it. Jobs, food stamps, education are often out of reach for people with outstanding warrants.

New Salem was chosen as the surrender point because its pastor is active in the community and fugitives apparently trust the church more than they trust the police.

"There's been somewhat of a division between the justice system and the community, especially the religious community," Ray said. Of the fugitives who surrendered at the church, many said they came in precisely because it was a church.

After the warrants are verified, those surrendering are fingerprinted and photographed. Most cases are heard on the same day, and the outcomes may be more lenient than they would be at 201 Poplar.

"We try to fashion a settlement that will let these people get this over with today and go home with their cases disposed of," said Mary Thorsberg, assistant district attorney.

Related Elsewhere:

A version of this story first appeared on the PBS program Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.

The next surrender period is November 1—3 at Bible Way Church in Washington, D. C.

Other articles on politics and law are available in our full-coverage section.

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