Opening church doors, closing cases of Philly defendants

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Philadelphia Municipal Court and the Court of Common Pleas are going to church.

Starting Tuesday, Enon Tablernacle Baptist Church in Cheltenham will host Philadelphia Safe Return, a three-day event for anyone with an outstanding city warrant to come clean.

Four courtrooms set up in the spacious church will serve as a “one-stop shop” for defendants coming forward on their own, said Common Pleas Judge Leon Tucker, criminal division supervising judge.

“It’s our hope that they can come here, we’ll have court rooms here, court staff, the [district attorney], the [police department], and perhaps even private counsel,” said Tucker. “So at the end of the day you walk in here with a warrant, and you can walk out with the whole case resolved.”

Tucker and President Judge Marsha Neifield of Philadelphia Municipal Court recognize the myriad reasons why people fall behind on their court appearances.

Representatives of the District Attorney’s office speaks at the introduction for Philadelphia Safe Return, at Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church, on Wednesday April 25, 2018. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

“People may miss a court hearing simply by oversleeping, being out of town, they forgot about it – and, for whatever reason, are afraid to come in and report,” Tucker said. “Some of them are for nominal things … misdemeanors, which are probably of very little consequence.”

The program is an effort to addresses the city’s backlog of bench warrants and parole violations. A recent Columbia University Justice Lab study found that one of every 34 adults in Pennsylvania is under some kind of court supervision. That’s 36 percent higher than the national average.

The same study found that, between 2005 and 2014, Pennsylvania’s incarceration rate increased by 16 percent while New Jersey’s declined 24 percent.

Opportunity to stop looking over your shoulder

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney announced the program Wednesday along with representatives of the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole.

Mayor Jim Kenney joins judicial leadership at the introduction for Philadelphia Safe Return, at Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church, on Wednesday April 25, 2018. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)
Mayor Jim Kenney joins judicial leadership at the introduction for Philadelphia Safe Return, at Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church, on Wednesday April 25, 2018. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

That office has gone through quite a culture change, said Leo L. Dunn, the board chairman.

“A few short years ago, the state parole board was known for a philosophy of ‘drill ‘em, nail ‘em and jail ‘em.’ Today’s philosophy is guide, support, and enforce for successful re-entry,” said Dunn.

It’s an opportunity for people to stop looking over their shoulder,” said Byron Cotter, director of the alternative sentencing unit at the Philadelphia Defender’s Association.

“Families that have children with warrants — they’re in fear that the police are going to break down their door and come in, and someone will get hurt,” said Cotter. “There’s no need for that. This is the time to take care of it.”

About 1,300 people showed up to settle their affairs with the courts nine years ago during a previous session of Safe Return.

“Nearly everyone had their case resolved,” said Cotter, who emphasized that lawyers will be available to people before they surrender at the church. “No one has to go into the church.”

Since word has spread of the program’s return, Cotter said he’s getting calls from all over the country.

“It’s a tremendous burden on someone who has these warrants,” he said. “I had one woman who just called me from Georgia who has [Philadelphia] cases from 1985, has never been arrested since. And wants to get them off of her because she wants to apply for a new job, and they’re coming up.”

Safe Return will take place May 1 through May 3 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Enon Tabernacle Church, 2800 W. Cheltenham Ave. Free transportation will be available from Broad and Olney to the church and back again.

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