A Chance to clear their cases
By Gary Soulsman
The News Journal
May 3, 2009
WILMINGTON -- David A. Brown Sr. stopped looking over his shoulder Saturday, the biggest day of the Safe Surrender program, when more than 300 non-violent offenders came forward to clear outstanding warrants.
On the second floor of New Destiny Fellowship church, Brown admitted to Mary McDonough, a commissioner in the Court of Common Pleas, that he was in violation of parole.
She reinstated his probation until Aug. 27 and asked him to take a drug test because his previous arrests are because of having drug paraphernalia.
"I've been clean for two months now," he told McDonough, who reminded him he has a pending court day on June 23 at 1:30 p.m.
The 42-year-old Wilmington man was visibly relieved as he left the temporary courtroom on the city's East Side. Brown could stop waiting for the police to arrest him.
"This whole experience has been a blessing," he said. "I take my hat off to the city of Wilmington."
A father of six, Brown liked being one of almost 1,000 people clearing more than 3,500 warrants in four days.
One reason for the large turnout Saturday is that many offenders would need money to pay fines and workers are often paid on Friday, said David Baldwin, chief in the investigative services division of the U.S. Marshals Service.
He said Safe Surrender, which has been held in a dozen cities since 2005, was a success in Wilmington. In his view, that was partly because of the strong involvement of religious leaders, such as Bishop Aretha Morton of Tabernacle Full Gospel Baptist Cathedral.
"I encouraged people to come out and take care of outstanding legal issues," Morton said. "I saw this as a great opportunity."
On Saturday, as offenders waited in the sanctuary for their number to be called, Morton was on the stage calling those numbers. Her role -- help nervous people feel at ease as they waited to have a case heard.
"Having pastors involved helps people feel safe in coming here," said David W. Thomas, U.S. Marshal for Delaware.
He worked three years to put together Safe Surrender in Wilmington.
But he gave the credit to the scores of volunteers, police, judges, officials from probation and parole, U.S. marshals, the attorney general, the U.S. Attorney, information technology professionals, as well as people from the Department of Motor Vehicles, the Department of Labor, James H. Groves Adult High School, addiction counselors and the Division of Child Support Enforcement. All were there to process cases and answer questions.
"I see this whole effort as the truest form of community policing and involvement -- one that builds bridges," Thomas said.
Usually these operations cost $40,000 to $70,000 in individual cities. But they offer tens of thousands of dollars more in savings, Baldwin said.
A study by Rutgers University dealing with a similar program in Camden, N.J., estimated a savings of more than $1.7 million from Safe Surrender, Baldwin said.
Typically, 60 percent of offenders walk out with a closed case, he said. The other 40 percent have been a concern. Will they follow through and appear for a new court date?
The U.S. marshals have found that more than 90 percent complete the legal process, Baldwin said.
Not everyone completed the process Saturday because too many people turned out to be seen in one day. So "overflow vouchers" were issued. The vouchers permit offenders to go to any Justice of the Peace Court by May 16. Court officers will adjudicate their cases without additional penalty.
"The voucher system has worked effectively in other places," Thomas said.
Safe Surrender is preferable to having officers seek to issue warrants, said Thomas, pointing out that 10 officers were killed nationwide last year performing this duty.
"Anytime police go to arrest someone, it's dangerous," he said. "Desperate people will do desperate things."
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