Promised ‘Safe Return,’ Philly residents flock to church to resolve bench warrants

Philadelphia Safe Return is underway at Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church in Cheltenham where it's hosting four courtrooms to help process the city’s backlog of bench warrants.

Listen 1:56

Annette Byrd came to Philadelphia Safe Return to support her daughter Sharon. She lives outside the city, “but since my address was the last one she used, I got the flier,” said Byrd.

The three-day event places courts, social services and other assistance all inside Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church on Cheltenham Avenue, so people with parole violations or outstanding warrants can come in and clean up their records.

Sharon, like 60 percent of Philadelphians with parole violations, has mental health and substance abuse problems. It’s been hard to get Sharon treatment, Byrd said, but with social services integrated into Safe Return, “We were set up with a program and an appointment for next week. So everything they promised you, they are producing.”

About 50 people turned themselves in on the first morning of Safe Return. No one was arrested. And each time someone successfully resolved violations, the church’s hallway echoed with applause.

“That would be the welcome committee,” said Byrd with a laugh, referring to the clapping.

The cheering was for Dominique Ross. She had just resolved an outstanding bench warrant for missing a court date on a misdemeanor charge.

Recently, “I was driving and we got pulled over, and [a police officer] told me I had a warrant. And I told the cop, ‘You’re lying.’ And he was like, ‘No you do!’

“And I had totally forgot about it,” said Ross of the matter that occurred when she was 17.

Set to graduate from Kutztown University soon, Ross said turning herself in was a relief.

“I think this is a really good program for people who want to do the right thing, but they’re kind of scared or nervous about the outcome,” she said.

Leo Dunn, who sits on the state board of parole, described the program as a short-term fix for counties and a long-term fix for the state.

“We’re not seeing as big of a backlog for parole violations at the state level,” said Dunn. “The counties really do first triage. So if they can reduce their outstanding warrants, then that means it’s less likely that some of those folks are going to get to the state level.”

The state parole board is planning a similar event for Allegheny County in September and another for Erie County next year.

Most of the warrants concerned residents of South and Southwest Philadelphia. To help people access the program across the city, Alyn Waller, one of the pastors at Enon Tabernacle, drove a van bringing people from Broad and Olney to the church.

The church’s 15,000-member congregation helped spread the word of the three-day opportunity.

“Some of our own congregation are here taking advantage of the program,” Waller said. “I saw a couple of familiar faces and kept walking, you know? But if it’s not them, it’s the grandmothers, the aunties, the cousins, the girlfriends and boyfriends that are saying, ‘Hey this is the program.’ ”

The pitch, he said, convinced those on the fence that they would be welcomed.

“No perp walk, none of that,” he said. “You’re going to see no one in handcuffs, I promise you.”

Philadelphia Safe Return continues through Thursday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal