Rise of the Church-Court - "Fugitive Safe Surrender", Revisited
Bruce Wilson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Mon Jan 31, 2011 at 11:22:11 AM EST
[note: update at end of this story] Back in 2006, about a year after Talk To Action was launched, I received a curious news item from Chris Rodda, now head researcher for the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. It was an article from New Jersey Lawyer which described "a rather extraordinary exchange between Chief Justice Deborah T. Poritz and U.S. Attorney Christopher J. Christie.... The U.S. attorney requested -- seemingly demanded -- that the state judges, in effect, set up court in churches for the purpose of arraigning fugitives. "...

Here's how the church-court scheme works:

Your city advertises a special "turn-yourself-in" four-day period when you can go to a specially designated Christian church* [see update] and turn yourself in, either to "a man with a gun, or a man with a Bible" (as Jeff Sharlet tersely puts it.) Then, a judge presiding over a special ad-hoc court temporarily installed in the church will consider your case. The suggestion is that, since you've turned yourself in, the law will go easy on you. What if you don't turn yourself in? Well, then comes the SWAT team.

As Jeff Sharlet (who dug into this after I alerted him about the church-court scheme) wrote in C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat To American Democracy,

[T]he four-day church-court would be followed by a massive sweep, with marshals rolling through America's cities in armored vehicles and kicking down doors like they were back in Baghdad. "Kind of a yin to the yang", explained the program's creator, U.S. Marshal Pete Elliott.

Church courts. Courthouses in churches. It's not a new idea, and in centuries past the churches might also have boasted some interesting torture machinery in their basements.

In late October 2006 I wrote up the story as New National Program to "temporarily transform churches into courthouses" and in May 2007 I revisited the subject and included in my post, with kind permission from New Jersey Lawyer, a reprint of the article describing that "extraordinary exchange" between [New Jersey] Chief Justice Deborah T. Poritz and U.S. Attorney Christopher J. Christie.

Here's an excerpt from the New Jersey Lawyer story (see link, above, for full version):

The U.S. attorney requested -- seemingly demanded -- that the state judges, in effect, set up court in churches for the purpose of arraigning fugitives. Such a program, called "Safe Fugitive Program," it was related, was conceived by a U.S. Marshall from Ohio. The program offered federal grants to churches, which would encourage fugitives to voluntarily come to church to turn themselves in; arraignments would then be conducted in church by judges, with the participation of law enforcement officers and public defenders. These arraignments would involve bail hearings that would lead to the arrest and incarceration of some defendants. The program, it was represented, had met with great success -- several hundred fugitives had been returned to the justice system through a Baptist church in Cleveland.

    Apparently, the chief justice had been asked earlier, in February, to allow this program to be undertaken by a Baptist church in Camden. She declined to do so. It was reported, in July, that the chief justice, refusing to endorse or authorize court proceedings to be held in church, emphasized that the program would not be consistent with principles of judicial independence and neutrality, and posed security issues as well.

    We could not agree more with the stance of the chief justice, nor disagree more with the position taken by the U.S. attorney, that would sanction judges, as well as law enforcement personnel, to use church facilities for the arraignment of criminal defendants.

    The program, which gave federal grants to participating churches, seems an extreme example of the so-called faith-based charity initiatives that are pursued by the federal government. These understandably generate a sense of unease because of their capacity, if not propensity, to encourage and support religion through federal subsidies, while only incidentally or marginally, or conveniently advancing a charitable cause. The "Safe Fugitive Program" goes further: it authorizes the church to be involved in judicial proceedings with the judiciary itself performing judicial functions in church.

My first story on the program included screen shots from pages, describing the Fugitive Safe Surrender program, that were subsequently deleted from the U.S. Marshal's Service website. As indicated on the scrubbed pages, "Fugitive Safe Surrender" was actually a trademarked name owned by a company belonging to a colleague of U.S. Marshal Peter Elliott, as described in a June 25, 2007 story from Ohio's WKYC-TV:

"The concept was developed by United States Marshal Peter Elliott, who then partnered with former prosecutor Douglas Weiner, Cleveland minister Rev. C. Jay Matthews, and WKYC-TV, to bring Fugitive Safe Surrender to a number of cities."

So, it seems the intent was to commercialize the program, so that Elliott's colleague Weiner could make a profit off the whole mess.

Back to Jeff Sharlet's C Street, page 267:

[Peter Elliott speaking] "Look, if people surrendered at the police department, we wouldn't have to do this. But they don't. And why don't they? Because they don't trust people like me. So I went back to the institution in my life that I trust the most. The church! If we brought the whole justice center out and put it in a church, people will turn themselves in."

Yes, indeed. Especially if they have reason to believe that, if they don't turn themselves in, a SWAT team may well come crashing through their doors, maybe preceded by flash-grenades through the window that with luck won't set the place on fire.  

So, back again to Sharlet:

"At its strongest, this apparatus is an engine for the privatization of public funds in religious hands; at its weakest, it's a patronage machine.
   Either way, it's been institutionalized.
   As has its parallel movement in the military. We've already gone beyond the problem of a few rogue officers. And, as the line moves, so do those who'd rather be out in front of it. If Gen. Petraeus, with his endorsement of Christian command manuals, and Gen. Caslen, wth  his aroma of Jesus Christ,: are at the center, who else is out there on the front lines of the fundamentalist advance...? Are there senior commanders who share the newly mainstream idea of "religious freedom" as a mission statement for invasion? It's a vision that extends not just to Iraq but to the Sudan, the Philippines, Syria, Venezuela, all nations targeted for liberation from radical Islam in the imaginations of leading conservatives... How many little wars might the United States be fighting by 2016 or 2020?"

That was Jeff Sharlet in 2010. In 2006 and 2007, when I described to him the extent of what I'd been finding on fundamentalist ideological penetration of the US military (and the coercive religious indoctrination of troops and officers that seemed to go along with it) he was skeptical: not any more.

Indeed, after I introduced Jeff to Mikey Weinstein and the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, he exhaustively researched the subject for the brilliant May 2009 Harper's Magazine article, Jesus Killed Mohammed: The Crusade For a Christian Military.

And Fugitive Safe Surrender, the "church-court" scheme? Oh, it's doing great, especially if you're of the opinion that church-state separation should tied to a cinderblock and tossed into the bay.  The program has run in at least 20 major US cities since its inception in 2005 and, as the U.S. Marshals web site explains,

"The goal of Fugitive Safe Surrender is to reduce the risk to law enforcement officers who pursue fugitives, to the neighborhoods in which they hide, and to the fugitives themselves. "

It's all about public-safety, it would seem. As an additional point of interest, despite Chief Justice Deborah T. Poritz's objections, Fugitive Safe Surrender is now happily ensconced in the state of New Jersey and has run in both Camden and Newark.

What I have to wonder is this - why does such a program have to be run in a church? Why not a library or other public building? And, if people feel safe turning themselves in to clerics, why not invite pastors, imams, rabbis and, for that matter, philosophy teachers? I'm sure that would work too, and it wouldn't privilege sectarian Christian churches over all other types of faith and belief.

[update: Per the U.S. Marshal's Service website descriptions of the individual program runs in various cities, some 2009 and most or all of the 2010 Fugitive Safe Surrender programs had available secular locations for fugitives to turn themselves in at. This raises new questions - are the religious and secular sites roughly comparable? What's the "user experience" like, comparatively? It would be good if the Marshal's Service has indeed made a good faith effort to make the program more inclusive (and thus constitutionally palatable) but I'm still somewhat skeptical given that the original architects of the program seemed to be wholly unaware of the need for a secular analog in the first place. I'd note that beyond New Jersey Lawyer I was the only voice critical of this program, back in 2006, that I'm aware of. Jeff Sharlet's C Street book mention was likely the most prominent critique of the program, but the book didn't come out until 2010. Sharlet's point, concerning the use of the program for political patronage, is another extremely important objection - if several churches in any given city get government grants for the program, that privileges some churches over other churches--another establishment issue.]

I would ask them: "How long before the doors belonging to people who just don't attend those churches will be knocked down, and how long before it's a crime to be anything BUT dominionist "Christian?"

As we know, they're already known to be ready and willing to use violence, and I suspect this all is an attempt to desensitize people to the ongoing destruction of the separation of church and state and to the possibility of state coercion in favor of their form of religion.

by ArchaeoBob on Mon Jan 31, 2011 at 01:45:45 PM EST

You know how shocked I was when I found out about this back in 2006 and first told you about it. I had actually forgotten about Christie (unfortunately now our governor) being behind this, so I'm very glad that you're revisiting the story.

by Chris Rodda on Tue Feb 01, 2011 at 10:58:09 AM EST
...those "secular" turn-in locations.

by Bruce Wilson on Tue Feb 01, 2011 at 03:08:24 PM EST

Christie apparently has no shame, and there will be nothing but rubble in his wake unless something or someone becomes drastic per his foci: especially education deconstruction at all levels. Turning a blind eye to Camden & the dismantling of virtually 50% of all public service and servants is a time-bomb ticking in a disaster zone already. The victims? Poor people, already strapped and devastated.

Philadelphia media has covered at least two similar 3 or 4-day turn-in operations, but I had thought it was state/local, not federal. Misdemeanors were stressed as who they were seeking with a warning that violent-related events and felonies might be arrested on the spot. The latter produced maybe a couple of dozen of the ill-informed, but the lesser crimes with lesser penalties were quite successful with 150+ counseled, put back on a regime and rescheduled and reintegrated. Yes, the location seemed to be a part of success experienced. I had no idea that a kickback was involved.

Something similar for illegal-gun-turnins has been run quite a few times with success too. The Philadelphia Black Clergy has been one sponsor, but also "Mothers of gun-violence victims" has done the same thing, yes also at church sites. It seems win-win at least as reported.

Philadelphia TV-radio-print media covers the other side of the river in Camden, et al., also.

by achbird65 on Mon Feb 07, 2011 at 02:53:03 PM EST

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