Criminal Justice

Over 2,200 Defendants Seek Hearings in Camden, N.J., Program; Officials Stunned

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Criminally charged in 1995, after a police officer allegedly found marijuana in her car, Renee Felton didn’t show up for her court date and spent more than a decade dodging a subsequent warrant for her arrest.

Now 48, she decided to come into court voluntarily after her niece saw a flyer about a federal program, Fugitive Safe Surrender, in which a local Baptist church was a partner. Tearfully waiting along with hundreds of others, she eventually got her day in court before a municipal judge, according to the New York Times.

Finding that the case hadn’t been timely prosecuted, Judge Robert Zane dismissed it. Felton thanked him and praised Jesus.

More than 2,200 people—including some who wrongly thought that there were outstanding warrants against them—waited in the cold across from the church during a four-day period last week to participate in the program, the newspaper recounts. It encourages primarily nonviolent offenders to come in voluntarily, promising them favorable treatment for doing so.

Officials—who had hoped 1,000 people would participate, according to the Associated Press, were stunned by the turnout. Public defenders were on hand to assist those who appeared in a makeshift courtroom in a building across the street from the church, but several hundred cases had to be postponed—with the same promise of favorable treatment.

Although 17,000 people in 12 cities have turned themselves in during the three years that the program has been running, only Detroit—a city 12 times the size of Camden, which has a population of 79,000—has had a higher turnout, according to the Times.

Not every fugitive’s story ended as happily as Felton’s:

“About 10 people were arrested after turning themselves in,” the newspaper writes, “including Domingo Placencia, a 37-year-old cook who had pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting a minor in 1992, but who never showed up for his sentencing.”

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