Fugitives who turn themselves in at a Columbia church this week can talk to an attorney, see a judge and even get job counseling without having to spend time locked up.
The U.S. Marshal's Service is bringing its Fugitive Safe Surrender program to Bible Way Church of Atlas Road, today through Saturday. South Carolina is the 10th stop for the program, which has encouraged more than 13,000 people to turn themselves in since the program began in Cleveland in 2005.
The program brings judges, defense attorneys and prosecutors together so they can all take a look at the case. Most nonviolent offenders should be able to leave the church with a court date and a lawyer. Others may have their charges dropped or a deal worked out after a judge reviews the case.
“There may be a fine, may be community service, but you will probably leave that building without looking at time served,” church spokeswoman Nicole Holland said.
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Holding the program at a church may make people more comfortable about turning themselves in, said Lexington County Sheriff James Metts.
“A lot of people are afraid to turn themselves in at the sheriff's department for whatever reason,” said Metts, who stressed several times this isn't an amnesty program.
Once the program ends Saturday, deputies in both counties will begin a sweep for fugitives and those people will be put in jail to await hearings without the additional help being offered by the program, said Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott.
Lott said the program also protects his deputies. “For every fugitive that chooses to voluntarily and peacefully surrender, law enforcement officers and residents face one less potentially dangerous confrontation on the streets,” he said.
State Sen. Darrell Jackson said Bible Way Church, where he is a pastor, decided to help after hearing success stories from other cities. A church in Detroit had more than 6,500 people turn themselves in June, while similar efforts in Akron, Ohio, Memphis, Tenn., and Phoenix have each brought in more than 1,000.
“These people can now get on with their life,” Jackson said.
Once the fugitives are processed, the church plans to have people in the parking lot to discuss spiritual matters.