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City may designate neutral sites where offenders can surrender
Officials want to let those with arrest warrants surrender at churches.
By Tony Plohetski
Saturday, September 08, 2007
Austin officials are trying to develop a way for suspects with outstanding arrest warrants for nonviolent felony and misdemeanor offenses to clear their cases by surrendering at places such as churches or community centers, saving them a trip to the courthouse and possibly jail.
City Council Member Sheryl Cole said she hopes the idea, which she and other leaders are borrowing from cities that have done similar programs, would encourage more people to resolve their warrants in a more neutral environment, where they could meet with judges, pay fines, or be sentenced to probation or community service, for example.
'We want to help police officers in their difficult jobs of confronting offenders. And we really need the help of the faith-based community and the entire community to do that,' said Sheryl Cole, Austin City Council member.
She said she thinks the set-up could reduce the friction between police officers and suspects on the street.
"We want to help police officers in their difficult jobs of confronting offenders," Cole said. "And we really need the help of the faith-based community and the entire community to do that."
She said about 11 percent of Austin's population has warrants for crimes such as unpaid traffic tickets or child support.
If the defendant shows up at a church where a judge, court officials, probations officers, presumably bailiffs, etc., are sitting there taking pleas and sentencing defendants, how is the church any more a "neutral" place than the courthouse?
My thoughts exactly!
And how does the person realize that a criminal charge could mean jail time if it is treated like a timeout?
Perhaps the city could make some money on this idea. For the low, low price of $50, your "arrest" can be preceeded by a couple of drinks, a nice steak and a massage. I bet that would take the sting out of custody.
Or perhaps certain companies would like to sponsor their location as the idea place to be "arrested" for certain crimes. Any ideas on how to match up businesses with the right crime?
Maybe some variation of "commedy defensive driving" ...
So prosecutors, bailiffs, and judges, should all go from the courthouse to a community center or church so we can make the fugitives with warrants feel better about themselves? They weren't kidding, Austin is WEIRD!
What happened to this tenet of law?
Then the civic-minded suspect could be ushered directly into the confessional.
Just have it at Starbucks. Then everyone can get a good cup of Joe and use the Wi-Fi.
Can we have secret recordings of those confessions? Or, would that be wrong? Do you have a right to privacy in a church being used as a police station?
Just have the judge and the priest both sit behind the same desk. Resolve your legal problems and receive absolution at the same time! a 2-fer!
Wanted: Justice with dignity
Thursday, September 13, 2007
So you wrote a hot check months ago, failed to take care of it and now there is a warrant for your arrest. Maybe you got busted for speeding, a minor drug charge or driving without a license. You didn't show up for your court date, pay the fine or see a judge. You know you're in trouble, but you fear going to the courthouse knowing that you might be jailed. On the other hand, you worry about a police officer turning up at your job or home.
Consider what a relief it would be if you could make a safe surrender.
Austin City Council Member Sheryl Cole is spearheading an initiative that would steer people with outstanding warrants for nonviolent felony or misdemeanor offenses to churches and community centers to clear their cases or turn themselves in to authorities. That would avoid a trip to the courthouse or arrest by police. She and others are calling it safe surrender. We call it justice with dignity.
There are more than 174,000 outstanding warrants from Austin municipal courts for Class C offenses, and that doesn't count nonviolent felonies. Add to that another 69,000 for traffic offenses. Those cases weigh down city and county courts. Tracking down the violators and hauling them into court is an expensive and antiquated method for clearing cases.
Cole's plan proposes a better way to handle warrants for nonviolent or petty crimes, a more dignified way that reduces the dread, embarrassment and trepidation of going to court.
She figures that folks would be more be more inclined to take care of their warrants if they could resolve them in a neutral environment where they could meet with judges, pay fines, arrange bond or be sentenced to probation or community service. The benefits would be seen in jails that would be less crowded and in the savings to city and county governments that would dispatch fewer police officers, deputies and constables to serve warrants and make arrests.
The proposal is modeled after the national Fugitive Safe Surrender programs developed by the U.S. Marshals Service. Cleveland, Phoenix, Nashville and Memphis use the program with success. Akron, Ohio, established its program in 2005. In July, about 1,200 people turned themselves in during a four-day event at the House of Lord Church. The church advertised the event as a "first step toward a second chance."
It's worth noting that folks who used the Akron program received favorable consideration for their surrenders, were provided consultations with attorneys and most went home the same day.
A safe surrender program also would benefit Austin by reducing the friction between police officers and suspects they stop and arrest. Police Chief Art Acevedo is supporting the initiative and helping to set it up. That is a positive step that shows police officers are interested in helping folks resolve problems rather than just making arrests and throwing them in jail.
The only downside in all of this: It won't happen any sooner than the end of the year or beginning of 2008. That is a long time to wait for people who have outstanding warrants but fear going to court.
In the commotion of my daily work, I had completely lost sight of the overarching idea that becoming involved in a dispute, civil or criminal, was supposed to be a comfortable affair. I've now seen the light. The potential of criminal charges and the procedures that follow shouldn't be something to be dreaded or -- in fact -- avoided.
I understand that saying you're against something that might reduce jail population is like saying you're against puppies or tolerance in this day and age. Indeed, our office is on the receiving end of a great deal of the pressure in our county to reduce the jail population by jettisoning those inconsequential misdemeanor offenders. And if the real point of this is efficiency, fine. Then say that and support it on that basis. But this is being implicitly sold as an antidote to the deterrent against criminal conduct that finds form in the "dread, embarrassment, trepidation" and "fear" associated with being formally charged with a crime.
Why stop here? The trauma of losing a case, whether you're a defendant or prosecutor, is a real self-esteem buzzkill. Let's declare everyone a winner and give them a trophy at the end of the day. It's a win-win.
I'm sure all these people just chomping at the bit to start a new life could turn themselves in at any time, and not wait for an ambush at work or home. Give me a break!
If you made the place of arrest a Starbucks and promised a free latte for every cleared warrant, then you would have a successful program.
Besides, there is a side benefit to these people being in fear of arrest. Maybe they will stop engaging in the behavior that increases the risk they will be stopped and arrested on the warrant. All those people who are out there with outstanding warrants are probably being extra careful not to speed or hang out in bars or do the other things that might result in their having contact with the police.
And besides, do we really want to tell people that if they fail to appear for their case that nothing "bad" will happen? Don't we want people to fear the consequences if they ignore their charges?
Do we need to adjust those warnings? After all, this is not your typical placement in custody. What should the officer/priest tell the confessor? I imagine it would be a kinder, gentler warning.
There might have to be some way to ensure that the defendant was properly admonished on the applicable punishment range -- from up to six months in Purgatory (the one that doesn't have very good skiing) and/or up to 2,000 pounds of brimstone for the minor offenses contemplated by the plan. I suppose being beset by demons, as well as wailing and gnashing of teeth, are just collateral consequences for which admonishments are not legally required. This is clearly going to require an update to The Perfect Plea, JB.
Wow. I spent too much time in Catholic high school, didn't I?
For those offenders with "meth mouth," teeth will be provided.
And all handcuffs will be fur-lined, for comfort.
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