Offender’s safe surrender in churches works, according to CWRU research findings

Seven years ago a coalition of concerned Clevelanders came together to try an unusual idea: Rather than have fugitives turn themselves in at police stations or courthouses, how about asking them to come to church?

This month, researchers at the Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at Case Western Reserve University reflected on the results of an initiative called the Fugitive Safe Surrender Program (FSS) that started in a single house of worship and has since spread across the country and touched more than 35,000 lives.

In the anchor article in the August issue of the American Society of Criminology’s journal, Criminology and Public Policy, the researchers detail how the FSS program has successfully worked.

The single most obvious lesson of the experience, explained Daniel J. Flannery and Jeffrey M. Kretschmar from the Begun Center for Violence Prevention Research and Education, is this: People trust churches.

The power of that concept was clear from the start. That first experiment—four days in August 2005 at a single house of worship—saw more than 840 people voluntarily report to face the consequences of their offenses. Among the group were more than 300 suspects with outstanding felony warrants, as well as hundreds of family members who were on hand to provide support, encouragement and even a bit of extra willpower.

The surprising success of that inaugural effort persuaded officials that engaging with faith-based communities provided an unprecedented opportunity to achieve results beyond the reach of traditional law enforcement approaches. Before long, the federal Department of Justice had scheduled more than a half dozen similar “Fugitive Safe Surrender” initiatives at sites throughout the country. U.S. senators and representatives were sponsoring bills to pay to expand the program, and the original sponsor of the idea, U.S. Marshal Pete Elliott, was receiving accolades far and wide.

Flannery and Kretschmar studied programs in 20 cities to understand more about what motivated people to participate and what benefits the model brought to communities. In an era ripe with examples of police officers shot and even killed when suspects seek to avoid capture, the notion that tens of thousands of individuals settled cases without violence is alone a cause for celebration. Add in that fewer than 2 percent actually were arrested, and 94 percent of those who received new court dates appeared as scheduled, the promise of the program becomes even more compelling.

Key to the initiative’s effectiveness are broad-based coalitions of representatives from law enforcement agencies, religious and community organizations and media. The programs also have drawn critical financial support from local, state and federal agencies as well as private organizations.

The FSS model allows non-violent individuals to have their cases adjudicated on site and also connect with community agencies that can offer support for mental health, employment and other social services.

FSS has held surrenders in 13 states and Washington, D.C. Between 2005 and 2010, surrender numbers ranged from 163 over four days in Tallahassee, Fla., to highs of 6,578 in Detroit and 7,431 in Cleveland.

The researchers found that the most common motivations for surrendering included the desire to obtain a driver’s license, a fresh start or employment. They also acknowledged the influence of family members’ pleas that they engage with the process.

A key finding of the research involved the significant deterrent posed by the financial cost of surrender. Fear of fines or other expenses kept many from surrendering who said they otherwise might have turned themselves in earlier.

The analysis of the FSS program, Flannery said, “illustrates that collaborations between law enforcement and faith-based organizations can result in significant numbers of open warrants being cleared in a non-conflict setting.”