At any given time in America, there are one million outstanding arrest warrants pending, give or take a few. These are court-approved documents allowing members of law enforcement to take into custody any suspect with his or her name on such a warrant.
In other words, there are one million scared people in America. These are people who spend a part of their lives looking over their shoulder wondering when the law will catch up with them and they'll be punished.
Some of these outstanding warrants are for scofflaw traffic infractions or minor drug offenses from years ago. Other warrants seek people who are suspected of committing violent crimes like rape and murder.
In the past, authorities have staged elaborate stings to try to get fugitives to reveal themselves. Offers of free televisions, football tickets or other big prizes have been dangled, and when the fugitives show up to claim their prize, usually with local TV cameras rolling on the ruse, they're handcuffed and hauled away.
"But that doesn't build the trust we need with the public," U.S. Marshal Peter Elliott told me recently. "It just adds to the desperation these people feel."
Elliott is acutely aware of what desperate people can do. He's third-generation law enforcement, having served for 27 years in the Cleveland, Ohio area. He's worked in undercover narcotics, was an ATF agent and is now in charge of the Marshall's service in the Northern District of Ohio. In 2000, a family friend, Cleveland Patrol Officer Wayne Leon, was involved in a routine traffic stop. The driver, it turned out, was wanted on an outstanding warrant for parole violation and had been on the run for seven months. When the confrontation turned ugly, Leon reached for his police radio. The suspect shot the officer point-blank in the face.
Leon's death spurred Marshal Elliott to help devise a better way to get fugitives to face their actions. "We had to take the desperation out of the equation," Elliott said, "And since church has always been a place of peace, comfort and security for me, I figured that would be the perfect solution."
The Fugitive Safe Surrender program was born in August 2005 at Mt. Sinai Baptist Church in Cleveland. With advance encouragement from the pastor, an astounding 850 people showed up to peacefully surrender. Three-hundred-twenty-four of them were wanted for felonies. It was a four-day affair where program organizers literally brought the justice system to the church: judges, clerks, bailiffs, and lawyers were all on hand to adjudicate cases. It's not an amnesty program, but those who turn themselves in get "special consideration" for their volunteer action. Some relieved fugitives got their case dismissed or probation; others were given court dates; and some came knowing full well they would be taken into custody and sent to jail.
Why do they do it? Because they come to realize that if you're wanted by the law, your life is truly not your own; you cannot advance. Applying for a job, college, military service or even a driver's license is frightening. Their lives stagnate at the point at which they committed their crime, and they become paralyzed with fear that they'll face double punishment -- once for the crime, another for running away.
Since that day at Mt. Sinai Baptist Church, the program has spread to 18 states and now boasts a total of nearly 30,000 citizens who have come in from the cold. The church-sponsored surrender in Detroit saw an astounding 6,587 fugitives show up. In some cities, only a few hundred turn out, but they take back to their neighborhood word that this program is no trick. It's a way to begin to wipe the slate clean and get their lives back on track. There's great hope for future surrender programs.
"For every one that shows up," Elliott said, "It's one less desperate person on the street. One less potentially dangerous confrontation for an officer of the law."
And astonishingly, the program, when announced from the pulpits of participating churches, sometimes results in brand new cases. In one congregation a man came forward to admit sexual misconduct with a child and went with his pastor to turn himself in.
Data has been compiled after every four-day program -- from the inception in 2005 to present day -- and the findings are important. Elliott told me 90 percent of the participants actually show up for their court date, 85 percent say that they participated because the surrender was at a trusted church venue, and 66 percent report that they came in with a close relative or a friend.
"It's often a decision made along with the mother, father, cousin, brother or sister. We've had mothers who've tearfully dragged in their sons to finally face those long-standing drug charges," Marshal Elliott said in a sympathetic tone. "Being a fugitive affects the whole family."
Gosh, this program makes such good sense -- saving money, time and officer's lives -- that I wonder why there isn't a Fugitive Safe Surrender in every state.
Diane Dimond can be reached through her web site: www.DianeDimond.com