People with warrants flock to Operation Safe Surrender
Operation Safe Surrender in York City
Eighty-year-old Sue Doering spent a year living in fear of being thrown in prison for having three outstanding parking-ticket warrants.
"I just ignored them. I knew I should've dealt with them sooner, but I was scared," the York City resident said. "It's been very stressful."
Two things kept her from resolving her warrants, she said — lack of money and fear.
"I didn't used to know what 'living on a fixed income' meant. I do now," she said. "And I'm scared of jail."
The senior citizen avoided being near police officers, and when one would pull alongside or behind her while she was driving, the nagging fear would return full force.
"I would think, 'Is this the day they're going to pick me up?'" Doering said. "I would hide my car in (a nearby) parking lot."
But on Thursday, Aug. 24, Doering stopped worrying.
Safe Surrender: That's because her friend and neighbor, longtime community activist Jerri Zimmerman, assured Doering she would avoid prison if she turned herself in at Operation Safe Surrender.
It's a joint initiative offered by the York County Sheriff's Office with help from county common-pleas judges, district judges, prosecutors, public defenders, court administration, social-services organizations and York's faith-based community, Sheriff Richard Keuerleber said.
Operation Safe Surrender allows people to resolve warrants in a neutral, faith-based setting in which nearly everyone will walk away free.
The sheriff's office held a similar initiative in 2010, called Operation Clean Slate, but without the social-services component.
About 565 people turned themselves in during the three days of Clean Slate, which resolved about 1,500 warrants and collected roughly $149,000 in fines, according to Keuerleber. Of those 565, only one person went to prison, he said, and that was a federal case.
The first day of Operation Safe Surrender was Thursday, but it continues Friday, Aug. 25, from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Stillmeadow Church of the Nazarene's York City campus, 350 Chestnut St.
About 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Keuerleber told The York Dispatch that district judges were still there and still helping people resolve outstanding warrants.
Standing room only: Hundreds of people poured into the church Thursday to resolve their outstanding warrants, some traveling hundreds of miles.
Although numerous chairs and tables had been set up, dozens of people still had to stand, and the church parking lot was overflowing by 10 a.m.
Willie Guerrero, accompanied by his wife, took a Greyhound bus from their Boston home to attend Safe Surrender.
He had a warrant for a 2006 case in which he was charged with traffic offenses including driving with a suspended license. Like Doering, Guerrero said he was afraid if he tried to resolve the warrant now, he'd wind up in jail.
Instead, he was treated with respect and courtesy, he said, and he was put on a payment plan.
"They took care of everything," he said. "That's why I came all the way from Boston."
'Overwhelming response': Keuerleber said government offices, judges, magisterial district judges and social-services groups put in a great deal of time to make the operation a success. The social-services component is new.
"We knew we'd have an overwhelming response," he said. "This time around, it's really about reconnecting people to the community and getting lives back on track."
Slow internet service initially slowed service at Operation Safe Surrender, but a system was worked out to speed it up, the sheriff said.
Doering, for example, arrived at 10 a.m. and had her cases resolved by about 2 p.m.
A number of magisterial district judges were on hand, including District Judge David Eshbach, who said people seemed relieved after speaking with judges.
"They are just glad to be able to get it taken care of," he said.
York County Common Pleas Judge Gregory M. Snyder agreed.
"A lot of them leave here very relieved," he said.
Some 'desperate': Local lay-pastor Juan Medina Sr. accompanied a friend who had warrants and was afraid to come alone. He said the incredible turnout is telling.
"It shows you how desperate people are to come clean with the law," Medina said. "I think it's a great program."
Matthew Carey, executive director of LifePath Christian Ministries, said he understands how easy it is to let a ticket go and then later be in denial about being wanted.
But when a person is eventually caught and ends up in prison, they often end up losing their homes, jobs and belongings.
LifePath Christian Ministries is one of the social-services organizations on hand at Operation Safe Surrender to help people who've resolved their warrants.
Responding to need: Carey said that based on people his staff spoke to Thursday, housing is the No.1 need, followed by mental-health services, then jobs.
"I had a mother who said, 'I don't have any clothes for my child,'" Carey said. "I told her, 'No problem. We're here to help.'"
Zimmerman, who's been a community activist in York for decades, said she believes poverty and fear are the two biggest reasons people let their tickets turn into warrants.
She accompanied Doering to Safe Surrender and repeatedly reassured the octogenarian that things would be fine.
The sheriff, who could be seen throughout the day chatting amiably with fugitives, also took time to reassure Doering.
"We're here to help you," Keuerleber told her. "It's going to be OK."
As Doering left Operation Safe Surrender at 2 p.m., the self-described aging hippie admitted she was pleasantly surprised at how she was treated.
"I felt very at ease," she said and urged others not to make the same mistake she did.
"When you neglect (tickets), it doesn't get better," Doering said. "I should've taken care of it long ago."
— Reach Liz Evans Scolforo at email@example.com or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.