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By Andrew Maykuth
The Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA - Tiffany Wilder went to church in South Philadelphia yesterday and experienced a life-altering moment - not with the Lord, but with the Philadelphia court system.
Wilder was among 151 people with 220 outstanding criminal warrants who turned themselves in on the first day of Fugitive Safe Surrender, a four-day program to induce nonviolent Philadelphia offenders to submit to the law in the sanctuary of a religious institution.
Wilder, 25, was wanted for failing to show at an April court hearing on an auto-theft charge. For appearing voluntarily yesterday, a judge rewarded her by lifting the bench warrant for her arrest and scheduling a new court date. (She says the auto-theft charge is a misunderstanding over a borrowed car.)
"I just felt so much relief," said Wilder, the mother of a 7-year-old who had been afraid to turn herself in before yesterday because she might have faced jail for missing her court date. "This is changing my life, right here, right now."
Other defendants, attracted by a promise of "favorable consideration" for surrendering, fared even better. Some with minor drug offenses or summary violations had their cases quickly adjudicated by the teams of prosecutors, public defenders, judges and probation officials who were installed in the True Gospel Tabernacle at 1606 Mifflin St.
"You have a miniature Criminal Justice Center here," said David C. Lawrence, court administrator of the First Judicial District of Pennsylvania, whose staff installed computers, phone lines, utilities and security devices in the aging brick church to replicate all the systems available in the courthouse.
"Our aim is to dispose of as many cases as we can," said Lawrence, who said the city's criminal-justice system was clogged with 63,517 outstanding warrants for 48,513 people, mostly in connection with nonviolent crimes.
"Our primary focus is to help people to clear up cases and move on with their lives," said Louis J. Presenza, president judge of Municipal Court. "Selfishly, for the courts, it helps us also clear cases."
Some defendants sped through the process in less than an hour - case closed.
Syreeta Mason, 25, of West Philadelphia, who missed a court date in May on a marijuana-possession charge, heard about the program on television yesterday and jumped on the subway. She found herself sitting before Presenza, who delivered justice in a tiny courtroom set up in a side chapel beneath a sign: "Pray Without Ceasing."
As a reward for throwing herself at the court's mercy, a prosecutor and a public defender recommended that Presenza drop charges against Mason. The judge agreed. The hearing lasted about 60 seconds.
"What have you learned here today?" the judge asked.
"I'm not smoking that stuff anymore," said Mason.
Philadelphia is the 11th city to operate a Fugitive Safe Surrender program, sponsored by the U.S. Marshals Service. The program was started three years ago by a marshal in Ohio as a way to prevent confrontations between fugitives and the police.
"The church provides people with kind of a security blanket, a way to make them feel at home," said John J. Patrignani, the chief deputy of the U.S. marshal in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.
The volume of people who surrender typically picks up with each day as word spreads that the program is not a ruse by law enforcement. "We are expecting the numbers to increase," said Sharon Beth Kristal, national coordinator of Fugitive Safe Surrender. "It was a good first day."
The program is limited to people wanted in Philadelphia, and it is aimed at nonviolent offenders, who account for the bulk of the outstanding warrants. Officials said they were turning away people wanted on Traffic, Juvenile or Family Court warrants.
Camden has scheduled a fugitive surrender program for Nov. 19 to 22 at Antioch Baptist Church, 700 Ferry Ave.
Three people were arrested yesterday, including one man wanted in an aggravated assault and two wanted on out-of-state warrants. Those who were arrested were quietly ushered out a rear exit of the church so that they were not handcuffed in the sanctuary.
The program came to Philadelphia at the urging of two pastors active in prison ministries: the Rev. Ernest McNear, True Gospel Tabernacle's pastor, and the Rev. Linward Crowe. McNear and Crowe operate the Kingdom Care Reentry Network, a program that mentors ex-offenders.
The ministers enlisted the U.S. marshal, District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham, Mayor Nutter, the Defender Association of Philadelphia, and court officials to endorse the program.
McNear, 57, an ex-drug offender who went into the ministry after a religious experience 30 years ago, considered the surrender program a natural extension of the prisoner reentry process.
"These people are in bondage, because this warrant is over their head," he said. He said people with outstanding warrants are unable to find jobs or to fully participate in the community. "They are constantly looking over their shoulders."
McNear said the Kingdom Care volunteers working with the offenders who surrendered yesterday were instructed not to evangelize, in order to avoid any conflict between church and state.
"There are no religious requirements, no preaching and no teaching," he said. "What we're doing is living the Gospel, not teaching it. From my point of view, I think this is the perfect demonstration of law and grace."
Court officials spent months setting up this week's program, sorting out logistics and devising procedures to speed up the process.
Prosecutors and public defenders said they had achieved a month's work in a single day. "We're pleased - so many people have showed up, and the system is working so smoothly," said Byron C. Cotter, director of the alternative sentencing unit of the Defender Association of Philadelphia.
John J. Delaney Jr., the chief of the district attorney's trial division, busily conferred with Cotter yesterday about cases, negotiating deals on the fly. He said the public benefited by offering "favorable consideration" to defendants "who didn't put us through the trouble of arresting them and bringing them to trial."
He said the program had intangible goodwill benefits of "decreasing the distance between the community and the justice system."

Wire Service
 
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