Eugene Marsh said it wasn’t a hard decision for him to make when he failed to appear in court for driving on a suspended license.
“It was bury my mom or go to court. It was a no-brainer,” said the 55-year-old Akron man. “My license has been suspended since 1992 because I was behind on my child support payments. The police arrested me on my birthday. I was supposed to start a new job the very next day. I spent four days in jail — when I got out, the job was gone.”
He said he turned himself in on Friday because he was tired of looking over his shoulder.
“I had to work to pay child support and I needed to drive to get to the job, but I decided I had to do the right thing and to stop blaming everybody else. I’m responsible.”
He was among about 180 people at the Fugitive Safe Surrender program at the House of the Lord at 1650 Diagonal Road. It is not a forgiveness program, but judges can be lenient under the right circumstances.
The four-day program concludes today. People have been lining up outside the doors on a daily basis since the program began Wednesday. The program runs from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
So far more than 900 people have asked for help with outstanding warrants.
There are 80 volunteers at the church, some to greet people, some to direct people or direct traffic, and others to take care of any children who are brought along.
“The Fugitive Safe Surrender program is held in more than 40 cities nationally and four in Ohio,” said Dan Flannery, a professor at Case Western Reserve, who gathers statistics for the program. “Nationally, 75 percent of the participants said it’s important that it is held in a church or they wouldn’t have turned themselves in.”
The first stop is at an intake table where participants are asked their name, why they are there and how they heard about the program. They are then assigned a number.
They are directed to either the municipal court, common pleas court, child support, bureau of motor vehicles, domestic relations or adult probation. Judges along with prosecutors and defense lawyers work to adjudicate the cases.
There are also outreach stations where people can get help through organizations that include the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Fame Fathers, Info Line, Oriana House and Fathers and Son.
“It’s a one-stop shop,” said Robert Davis, the coordinator of the program from the Ohio Attorney General’s Office.
He said the program was really designed for the safety of law enforcement officers.
“It could be the wrong day for officers to make that traffic stop,” said Davis. “The stop could happen when someone’s mom is sick, the day someone has to get to a child or a job and they don’t want to go to jail that day. Then it’s an issue of pursuit and resisting arrest. It’s not a forgiveness program, but it’s a start. It’s the first step toward a second chance.”
Davis said by renegotiating things, the edge can be taken away and people can live a little easier.
“You can’t get a job if you have a warrant, you can’t get an apartment, you can’t live above the radar,” he said.
James Walker, 60, of Akron, said he came to try to clear things up.
“It worked for me. My license has been suspended since 1973. I had $1,000 worth of fines and only had to pay $20. Now I can get my license back. It took me two and a half hours, but it was worth the wait.”
When Angela Robinson helped her brother go through the program in 2009, she was so impressed with the results she came back this time to volunteer.
“My brother had three open child support cases,” said Robinson, 35. “He would get good jobs then lose them because he couldn’t catch up with the arrears payments, so they would throw him in jail for three days and he would lose job after job. So he moved to Florida because in Florida he could work and pay his fines without adding on any jail time.
“They worked with him and he was able to catch up on his child support. I am grateful. Now he is back living in Akron and back in everybody’s lives.”
Most of the offenders were traffic-related cases.
“We have seen 80 percent of the cases have to do with suspended licenses and the rest are nonviolent felonies, mostly child support cases and some probation violations,” said Joe Kodish, head of the public defender’s program. “We meet with the prosecutor and try to come to some agreement with the judge. The process takes a few hours, but ordinarily could take days.”
Kodish said some walk-ins were not as lucky to get their cases resolved, but were assigned court dates to at least get things moving on their cases. Some people were also given the chance to stay out of jail until July 3.
“It’s an outstanding program,” said the Rev. Herman Matherson, the host pastor at the House of the Lord. “I have talked to so many people who were pleased with the results. Many said they had been afraid to turn themselves in. This way they can come with the support of family members and faith members to ease their fears.
“You still have to face a judge, but this is a much more relaxed environment.”
Marilyn Miller can be reached at 330-996-3098 or firstname.lastname@example.org.