Drivers on a high-speed highway that cuts through Nashville, Tennessee, recently saw an unusual roadside sign that read: "FUGITIVE SAFE SURRENDER."
It referred to a program by the U.S. Marshals Service that now operates in 14 cities. The sign meant that at the next exit, a safe haven existed for fugitives who are wanted by the police for nonviolent crimes. These points of peaceful surrender are open from time to time for a few days, usually in a church. About 19,000 people on the run have turned themselves in since the program started three years ago.
Wanted criminals often hide their identity. Fearing arrest and confinement, they continue unlawful activity such as drug dealing and prostitution. Or they accept low-paying jobs under the table, with no benefits.
Even worse, they, their families, friends and neighbors, innocent bystanders and authorities all face lethal danger when marshals or police - guns drawn - knock down doors or confront wanted persons on the street. The Fugitive Safe Surrender program was begun, in fact, in Cleveland, Ohio, after a wanted felon killed a U.S. marshal in a gun battle.
No guns, and usually no handcuffs, are involved at Safe Surrender locations. There's even a lawyer on hand to represent fugitives - and often a judge, too, to resolve the charges. The church becomes a safe, satellite courthouse.
This is not an amnesty program, however. Fugitives must, as the saying goes, face the music for crimes they may have committed. But the Marshals Service indicates that judges usually look favorably on those who peacefully give themselves up. To date, 90 percent of those who have turned themselves in under the Fugitive Safe Surrender program have not gone to jail.
Read more of Ted's personal reflections and stories from the road on his blog, Ted Landphair's America.