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Churches of Refuge

Program allows fugitives to surrender at churches instead of police stations.
2008This article is part of CT's digital archives. Subscribers have access to all current and past issues, dating back to 1956.

Churches are opening their doors to criminal offenders in a U.S. Marshals Service program that is growing in popularity despite concerns about church-state separation. Called Fugitive Safe Surrender, the program allows people with outstanding warrants to turn themselves in at churches rather than at law enforcement facilities.

Fugitive Safe Surrender operates in seven cities and has brought in 6,500 offenders in less than three years. "The goal is to take that desperateness out of the equation," said Pete Elliott, a U.S. Marshal and devout Catholic who developed the program. "I felt [people] would trust the word of the clergy more than they would trust the word of law enforcement."

Participating congregations allow local police, deputy sheriffs, judges, and public defenders to set up a processing system and makeshift court in the church building. Offenders generally are treated favorably, but "this is not an amnesty program," Elliott said. Offenders wanted for nonviolent crimes, such as drug possession, may be tried and sentenced within hours. Violent offenders are taken into custody. According to Elliott, 85 percent of fugitives who have participated in the program said they would not have turned themselves in otherwise.

So far, churches in Cleveland, Phoenix, Indianapolis, Akron, Nashville, Memphis, and Washington, D.C., have served as safe havens, and law enforcement officials in other cities are considering adopting the program. Most participating churches have been large African American congregations such as the House of the Lord in Akron. Some 1,100 people—including members of the congregation—turned themselves in at the House of the Lord over a four-day period in July.

However, Fugitive Safe Surrender was quashed ...

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