Yesterday’s WaPo had a fascinating account of an innovative program the DC police is running, to offer people who are “fugitives” from the law a safe-seeming and humane way to come forward and resolve their situations. Significantly, it is based in one of the city’s big churches, the Bible Way church.
Thursday, in the first of three days the program will run, some 150 fugitives turned themselves in. Most of them were reportedly wanted in connection with nonviolent crimes. One man who came forward in connection with an assault and battery charge was arrested and taken away in handcuffs. The authorities reportedly offered “favorable consideration” to those who came forward.
WaPo journo Robert Pierre added these details:
- The effort is part of a national program that has resulted in more than 5,000 people with outstanding warrants coming forward in five other cities. Most have shown up with family members, and the vast majority said they might have kept running if not for the non-courthouse setting.
“They talk about the safety and sanctity of the church,” said Kent State University professor Daniel Flannery, who has surveyed participants in all six cities.
Participants yesterday expressed similar feelings as they arrived at Bible Way Church. They were greeted at the front door by volunteers, many of them members of the church, who guided them toward metal detectors set up inside.
Dozens and dozens of law enforcement officers were present, although most of them were in the background, many out of sight of participants. Church ladies and pastors chatted with the arrivals, offering them something to eat or drink.
Soon, however, participants were ushered into the basement, where the wheels of justice were in full motion. People were outfitted with wristbands, introduced to defense attorneys and moved to makeshift courtrooms, where judges heard their cases.
In one of them, Rufus G. King III, chief judge of D.C. Superior Court, presided. Activity swirled all around: People hustled in and out, reporters requested interviews. Noise from adjacent “courts” crept over walls that didn’t reach the ceiling. The commotion became so overwhelming at one point that King signaled to an aide, who promptly gestured for quiet in the nearby hallway.
Order restored for the moment, King whipped through cases, dismissing some, setting new court dates for others. As he dismissed one marijuana possession case, King told the man: “We all know that marijuana isn’t going to grow hair on your palms, but it will get you locked up. You got off of this case, but don’t get another one.”
The man nodded and left, smiling…
I should note that the US is one of the world’s greatest incarcerators, now having more than two million people in jail. It is a vindictive, ill-organized, and largely dysfunctional system that leaves almost no room for the education and social rehabilitation of inmates. Instead, once behind bars, many of them become even further socialized into tough-guy, violent behaviors. And of course, their family ties are nearly completely disrupted and cut off; and yet another generation of kids is forced to grow up without fathers or– as is increasingly the case these days– mothers.
(And this system of so-called criminal “justice” is one that many well-meaning Americans want to export to all corners of the world??)
I am delighted that these churches are working with the court system to offer this alternative. What I see in this report has many aspects of the far more humane, life-affirming, and effective “restorative justice” approach to dealing with wrongdoers. Including that the offenders are welcomed into this program with family members accompanying them, rather than being forced to stand in a criminal dock alone; and they are treated with hospitality and respect by the “church ladies.”
My Quaker meeting in Charlottesville has been quite involved with offender-restoration projects in the city and region there; and more recently it has been working with the juvenile justice system to put in place some truly restorative justice procedures as an option, whenever possible. But as far as I know, the Bible Way church here in DC is far larger than most Quaker meetings. It is great that they’re doing this.