Hundreds of people lined up outside the Cathedral of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Las Cruces, N.M., last summer, waiting for the doors to open so they could make amends for past mistakes. But it wasn’t the forgiveness of God they were seeking, it was the pardon of the legal system.

The cathedral was among a growing number of churches nationwide to host the U.S. Marshals Service’s Fugitive Safe Surrender program, an initiative that allows nonviolent criminals with outstanding warrants to turn themselves in to law enforcement. Since beginning in Cleveland in 2005, the program has spread to more than 20 cities, with nearly 30,000 individuals coming forward to surrender and having their warrants cleared.

In Las Cruces, the only city where marshals have used a Catholic church, more than 1,000 people surrendered over four days. Gloria Alderette, a parish volunteer who helped organize the event, said people began lining up early in the morning and kept coming well after the doors closed.

“There’s always consequences for our choices, and I think this is a cleansing opportunity,” Alderette said. “You could see that some of them were scared, but most of them were relieved that they had this opportunity to take care of things, to correct the things that they had been living with and the fear that they were going to get arrested.” 

Trust factor

The overwhelming numbers who have come forward — which have reached as high as 7,000 in a single location — have made safe surrender a success. But it also raises the question of why some who had spent years evading law enforcement would choose this opportunity to come forward.

The answer, said researcher Daniel Flannery, is simple — the involvement of a church.

Flannery, director of the Institute for the Study and Prevention of Violence at Ohio’s Kent State University, has worked with the marshals to conduct studies in each city where the program has been held. Among those surveyed, 75 percent say they would not have surrendered in any other setting.

“You can’t just do this in a community center or in a jail,” Flannery told Our Sunday Visitor. “There seems to be a very particular importance placed on the church. They know that if they show up at a church they are going to be treated fairly and with respect and that it is not a trick, and that is one of the key things that makes it work.”

In most cases, Flannery said, the site has been a Baptist church, but the denomination is irrelevant to the success. Churches are chosen by community members based on such considerations as size, accessibility and layout, as well as the church’s reputation in the community and its ability to get the word out, he said. 

Blurring the lines?

Although the use of a church is crucial to the success of the program, it has also been a source of controversy. Groups such as the Freedom From Religion Foundation and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State have argued that holding legal proceedings at a religious institution blurs the line of separation between church and state.

Richard Garnett, associate dean of the University of Notre Dame Law School and an expert on issues of church-state separation, told OSV that such concerns about the program are not unwarranted. While cooperation between religious entities and government is not itself unconstitutional, he said, several important criteria must be met — namely, that the state not delegate political power to a religious entity and that the cooperation not be seen as an endorsement of a particular religion.

But in the case of Fugitive Safe Surrender, Garnett said, both sides seem to have successfully avoided overstepping constitutional boundaries.

“There will sometimes be occasions where even though good things might be happening, it just goes too far. But this just doesn’t strike me as such an occasion,” he said. “The church is not actually exercising any of the government’s authority, and the government is not actually employing any of the religious community’s authority.”

Such cooperation is both permissible under the law and healthy for the community.

“There are pitfalls, and you want to avoid them, but if you do avoid them successfully, there’s also the promise of something really good happening, which is that the common good of the community is served through cooperation between these two different kinds of authority,” Garnett said. 

Offering redemption

Another criticism levied against Fugitive Safe Surrender is that it gives criminals an undeserved reprieve, letting them off the hook for their crimes without facing appropriate penalties.

But Msgr. Michael Mannion, director of community relations for the Diocese of Camden, N.J., believes it is more about giving people a chance at redemption. In Camden, where Msgr. Mannion helped to organize a federal safe surrender at a Baptist church in 2008 and an ongoing program on the county level, he has seen many former fugitives become volunteers in the program.

“It offers not amnesty, but consideration,” Msgr. Mannion told OSV. “Especially for non-violent criminals who may have a chance of straightening their lives out, and not only avoiding prison but making a positive contribution to society.”

From a Catholic perspective, he added, a program that helps those who are actively seeking forgiveness and are in need of assistance is very much in line with the Gospel.

“It goes to the heart of the Christian message,” he said. “The vision of the safe surrender program is the call that Christ puts in our hearts to reach out to our brothers and sisters who are in these difficult situations and who obviously are looking to get their lives together.

“And if we can do something to help them put their lives in order and help them provide for their families in an appropriate, healthy and spiritually sound way, I believe we’d be wrong as Christians not to do so.” 

Scott Alessi writes from New Jersey.

How It Works (sidebar)

The U.S. marshals’ Fugitive Safe Surrender program generally takes place over a four-day period in a church facility. Faith leaders, social service agencies and other partners help to publicize the event, inviting all who have outstanding warrants to come during the hours of operation.

A group of judges, prosecutors and law enforcement officials process cases on a first-come, first-served basis, with individuals having an opportunity for their case to be settled in a matter of hours.

The majority of fugitives who attend safe surrender are wanted for nonviolent offenses, such as traffic violations, missed court appearances or drug possession charges. They are generally given a reduced fine to pay, with consideration for the fact that they have turned themselves in voluntarily, and their warrant is cleared. Statistics show that approximately 20 percent of those who surrender discover they actually did not have an outstanding warrant, while less than 2 percent are arrested and taken into custody.

Individuals who cannot be processed, either due to time constraints or because their warrant is out of the jurisdiction, are given new court dates and a voucher indicating they have voluntarily surrendered. More than 90 percent appear in court as scheduled.