Under Fugitive Safe Surrender, non-violent offenders have the opportunity to turn themselves in with the understanding that their arrest warrants will be treated favorably.
“The point in the program is to have people take responsibility for their crimes,” said Aronow, adding that most offenders who participated in the program were able to pay a small court fee or fine and leave the facility on probation.
The majority of those who have a warrant out for their arrest haven’t shown up for a court summons or haven’t complied with their probation terms. Under normal circumstances if they were stopped by a police officer, regardless of how small the crime, they must be taken in and go through an official process in the courts, which costs taxpayers thousands of dollars. Each person who voluntarily surrendered as part of this program represents an estimated savings of $420 to local governments.
The program was first instituted in Camden, NJ at a community church, so it would feel less threatening than a police station. “We really didn’t know what to expect,” said Aronow, adding that each day the number of people coming in doubled once they saw others receive favorable treatment, and in total more than 2,000 fugitives surrendered over four days. “People were lined up four across, and the line extended for two-and-a-half blocks,” he said.
The program was then taken to cities across the country, including Cleveland, Detroit, Philadelphia, Boston, Memphis, and Harrisburg. New Jersey cities included Newark, Atlantic City and New Brunswick. Some of the offenders even offered to volunteer for the program once they met their legal obligation.
“It’s amazing that people will turn themselves in,” said Thomas, who was skeptical of the program when it was first introduced. He has since travelled the country assisting with and advocating for the program. “People all over were saying they were tired or running,” he added, citing various reasons why people were turning themselves in, including family, wanting to obtain a license, or wanting to enroll in a program for drugs or alcohol, which isn’t possible if a person has an outstanding arrest warrant.
Thomas recalled one woman who had a heroin addiction but wanted to get help, so she went to the Safe Surrender in Camden to clear her record and enroll in a rehabilitation program.
“It was great to see how this program could help someone turn their life around,” said Thomas, who still keeps in touch with the woman today. “I’m really proud to be part of this program.”
Last April, more than 3,000 people turned themselves in at New Jersey’s last Fugitive Safe Surrender, which was held in Atlantic City. A total of 13,276 individuals have turned themselves in at the state’s four events, ranking New Jersey the highest in the nation. In total more than 43,000 have surrendered across the country.
“These people just needed the chance to start over with their lives,” said Aronow, adding that nationally, less than two percent of those who surrendered were taken into custody. He said those who were arrested knew their crimes would merit the charge, including one person who flew in from Paris to surrender himself.
While the program has stopped for the time being, Camden and Newark have continued the concept with their own “safe surrender” program, since this initiative was so successful.
“We can’t measure the amount of people we saved, but we know we gave a lot of people a second chance at life,” said Aronow.
Click here for more information on the Fugitive Safe Surrender program.