This Easter weekend, thousands will visit Antioch Baptist Church in Brooklyn – to have their outstanding court warrants resolved.
Residents with warrants for minor offenses like underage possession of alcohol, trespassing, disorderly conduct, and loitering will be able to resolve their cases in front of a judge in the church building without ever having to step into a courtroom.
Advocates say the effort will help many people in the community whose lives may be complicated by old warrants.
“Anyone with an open arrest warrant will have trouble getting employed and may be afraid to use community services,” said Rev. Johnny Ray Youngblood of Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church, which has partnered with Antioch to provide an information and food fair for residents. “Those people live in the shadows of society.”
According to Youngblood, many avoid coming to court because “going downtown is a fearful process. There is a normal apprehension that any summons will end in jail time or in a fine that they can’t pay.”
Antioch guarantees that no one coming to the church with a Class C summons will have to pay a fine or do jail time. The most residents can expect will be community service.
“There is a level of trust in the church that won’t allow anyone to be mistreated,” said Youngblood.
Youngblood and the Rev. Robert Waterman of Antioch Baptist Church paired with Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes and black clergy across Brooklyn to create the program, called Safe Surrender. It was first reported by the Daily News.
Lawyers from the Metropolitan Black Bar Association and Brooklyn Legal Aid will represent residents, and volunteer judges will hear the case in the church. Residents only have to show up at the church with ID to have their cases heard.
Youngblood and Waterman got the idea for the event from a similar program, called Fugitive Safe Surrender, created by the U.S. Marshals service in 2006. In that program, fugitives who have no history of violence could turn themselves in for lower level felonies in a neutral, faith-based setting.
Fugitive Safe Surrender currently operates in 20 cities across the United States, including Camden, N.J. and Rochester, N.Y.
According to Anita Davis, the volunteer coordinator for the program, 300 people have already volunteered to help.
Some of those volunteers had open warrants themselves, all of which have already been resolved by the DA’s office.
The volunteers may have a lot of work when the church’s courtroom opens on April 22 and 23. There are currently more than 350,000 open warrants in Brooklyn alone.
Youngblood expects at least 3,500 people to come to Antioch on Easter weekend. Some 2,500 residents known to have open warrants have received letters about the program. Volunteers have also been posting fliers about the program for the past few weeks.