Robert Amico had a warrant in his name. In 2000, he was arrested for possession. He pled guilty and was sentenced to four years and four days probation. However, he violated the terms of his release and a warrant was issued in ’02.
Thanks to Philadelphia Peaceful Surrender, which allows those with an arrest warrant out on them to turn themselves in 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, he now has the opportunity to clear up the situation and turn his life around.
The resident of Ninth and Wharton streets went to True Gospel Tabernacle, 1606 Mifflin St., with support of friends James Shepard, of Ninth and Ellsworth streets, and Joe Crovetti, of Seventh and Federal streets.
“My friend here, he’s tired. He wants to get his life back on track and he can’t get his life back on track,” Shepard said.
With a warrant for his arrest, Amico can’t get a job, or access health care and education, among other things.
“I thought I would get caught. Next thing you know it’s five years later,” Amico said.
At first, he had to be convinced to participate in Peaceful Surrender, but he really wanted to move on with his life, so he rethought it. The former contractor can begin working again after the matter is cleared up.
After turning himself into the church Tuesday morning, a volunteer from Kingdom Care Reentry Network, which also is based out of the church, called Probation Office Supervisor John Dunn to line up the next step and inform him that he will not be arrested.
“The bottom line: He’ll get help from John Dunn and he’ll get him back on track,” the volunteer, who did not want to be named, said.
This time Amico plans to follow through with his probation.
“One hundred percent,” he said.
With more than 50,000 active warrants in the city, Peaceful Surrender is trying to clear up as many as it can. The key to the program is people feel safe turning to the church, Dr. Ernest McNear, pastor of the church and chairman of Kingdom Care, said.
“When we are able to do this, it brings safety to everyone,” he said. “When someone is wanted, it doesn’t matter what they’re wanted for, they’re wanted. By doing this, we bring forth safety and a sense of security.”
Residents have been coming to the church since the program’s opening July 7 and the numbers continue to rise. By 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, 10 people had already worked with the church to clear their names. A day later, about 50 people had utilized the program in South Philadelphia, Kingdom Care program manager Greg Thompson said. Thompson expects the numbers to rise over time.
“I think it’s gaining momentum,” he said, adding a public service announcement will launch next week. “It’s not where I’d like it to be. People are getting the word out. It’s all about getting the message out.”
In September, Fugitive Safe Surrender turned True Gospel Tabernacle into an intense, four-day one-stop shop for citizens with arrest warrants. While Peaceful Surrender is a follow up, its operation is different, but has the same mission, McNear said.
“The goal for both was to allow people with warrants for arrest, primarily misdemeanors and non-violent crimes, to turn themselves in and get positive consideration for turning themselves in,” he said.
Nearly 1,300 people cleared up their cases last fall, but this summer’s program could become long-term. Churches located in West Philadelphia, North Philadelphia, Ogontz, Holmesburg and Kensington — which offers services to Spanish-speaking residents — have joined forces for the program and, at the end of the summer, McNear and his staff will sit down with Mayor Michael Nutter, Deputy Mayor Everett Gillison and President Judge Pamela P. Dembe to discuss the possibility of keeping it going.
The program has yet to receive City funds, but McNear, who is mindful of the budget crisis, is hopeful they’ll be able to help in the future.
“These religious leaders — we’ve done what we can with what we have,” he said. “We’re hoping to sustain it.”
When someone comes into the church, Thompson and Kingdom Care volunteers assess each situation and helps the person get to the next step, even escorting them to the courthouse or probation office, if necessary. The majority of cases include bench warrants for violation of a probation, retail theft or prostitution, but McNear assures non-violent offenders will not be arrested.
“Instead of going back into prison, we can take them in a different direction,” he said.
Many who reach out to the church have missed court dates or have traffic violations. Although the church does not deal with traffic issues, it’s looking into how to address those problems. As for missed court dates, the program reschedules appointments and a person receives favorable consideration whereas he or she would be arrested if the program did not intervene, Administrative Assistant Keysiah Middleton said.
“If you don’t have your warrants lifted, you’re just going to be on the run,” she said. “You can’t do anything.”
The church may be providing a safe way to clear up warrants, but some may still be hesitant, Middleton said.
Nonetheless, those who come in must be ready to get on track and attend their newly scheduled court date.
“The thing is — what everyone needs to be crystal clear on — they must follow through or they will be arrested,” she said.
In Pennsylvania state correctional institutions, nearly 70 percent of inmates are African-American or urban, McNear said. More than half of them are from the Philadelphia area.
“We have to stop this circle of recidivism and bring hope and help to our communities,” he said. SPR