500 Cleared Warrants Point to Pressing Need
–DA Hynes Credits Rev. Youngblood with “Safe” Idea–
On Good Friday, Greene Avenue between Lewis and Stuyvesant was completely blocked off for Project Safe Surrender. Antioch Baptist Church was transformed into an official court, with Judge Deena Douglass presiding. Hundreds converged to have their warrants cleared. A collaboration between clergy, community and law enforcement, Project Safe Surrender allowed 500 people to have their warrants cleared or dismissed at face value. Criminal Term Chief Administrative Judge Camins supervised the proceedings.
The warrants originated from summonses, including cases where individuals were charged for crimes including Consumption of Alcohol in Public, Aggressive Solicitation, Littering, Riding a Bicycle on the Sidewalk, Trespassing, Loitering, Disorderly Conduct, Unlawful Possession of Alcohol under the Age of 21, Unlawful Possession of Handcuffs, Making Unreasonable Noise, Animal Nuisance, Failure to have a Dog License, Unleashed Dog, Spitting, Unlawfully in a Park After Hours, and Failure to Comply with Posted Signs in the Park. “You may consider these low-level, quality-of-life crimes,” said DA Hynes, “but if you are given a summons, you must pay it or go to court to argue your case. In many cases, these were long-standing summonses.”
DA Hynes said, “This was actually Rev. Youngblood’s idea. He came to me last year and said he heard the Marshal’s Service had conducted one of these operations. Lots of people came in who had warrants for their arrest because of low-level violations. We had a survey of how many folks in Brooklyn fall under this category. It’s almost 300,000. We tried our first one in June (at St. Paul’s Community Baptist Church). We had 120 folks come in and have their warrants cleared. There has been a great deal of advertising by the clergy doing it every Sunday from the pulpit, as well as in print and radio. Friday, April 22, we had 191 folks come in, clearing 223 summonses. As of Saturday, April 23, we are well on our way to 500. Judge Deena Douglass is doing a fabulous job.”
Hynes added, “There were representatives of the Queens County DA here interested in doing it. I’d like to see this go citywide for many reasons.” When asked why, Hynes said, “Look around. The face of criminal justice is African-American. We have to do something to change that. This is the way to get people cleared from these warrants so they can apply for jobs – better-paying jobs where you have to be fingerprinted. By having more of these operations, by getting donations from various sources, there is no reason we can’t do this every two months of every year until there is a substantial drop in the number of warrants.”
Hynes acknowledges the project helps the court system by clearing the backlog of these cases. “There is no reason why we can’t do this every two months for every year that we need to,” Hynes said.
Project Safe Surrender, which is strictly for Brooklyn residents, offers individuals the opportunity to turn themselves in to clergy and law enforcement and have their warrants and summonses lifted and their cases adjudicated.
When asked if Project Safe Surrender is a needed operation in communities of color, Hynes said, “There is no demographics, but that is my suspicion. Look around. You see what we have here today. Do Caucasians show up in court? Pay their fine? Do their community service? I don’t know.”
Hynes added, “What I worry about is all of these thousands of people walking around looking over their shoulder waiting for the cop to stop them and put them through the system. This will avoid that. This is a serious attempt to clear warrants hanging over someone’s head,” he said.
“The reason we are having this in church is we believe it is a lot friendlier for someone to come here rather than go downtown,” said Hynes.
A coalition of 15 churches participated from Brooklyn Congregations Together. Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church provided lunch and a community resource fair for attendees. Over the two day event, Council members Al Vann and Jumaane Williams, State Senators Velmanette Montgomery and Eric Adams, and Congressman Ed Towns attended. Council member Letitia James stayed throughout the two-day effort, and promised to conduct an Safe Surrender effort in her 35th district. “I think this project should be replicated and made permanent. I am going to try to find some money to have it in my district. I am here as an elected official, as a lawyer, and as a community person. I am here as someone who cares about these young men and women. I am here because it is the right thing to do,” said James.
The Metropolitan Black Bar Association (MBBA) was involved in the first Safe Surrender. Rev. Youngblood and Dr. Jones contacted Cinceria Edwards to act as the legal liaison on behalf of the churches to make sure everything was OK legally, to answer questions from people in the community, to work with the DA’s Office, )the prosecution side), and Legal Aid.
As word spread across Brooklyn, the people kept coming. “More than 40 people were assisted at deadline,” said Edwards. “There was a decision made not to turn anyone away, even as they were still coming at the 5PM Sat. deadline.” Edwards found out what each summons issue was. Everything she could not take care of at deadline, Edwards promised follow-up to help take care of their warrants. “My role was to make sure everyone who wanted help, received help.”
Edwards said, “I was very alarmed and annoyed at the number of young children who were getting frivolous summonses. Some of them had spent time in jail. I got phone calls from teenagers who had spent two days in jail on a warrant for walking through the park from one project to another where they lived. This is too frivolous for them to put our children through the system. They miss days of school over nonsense. It is a set-up, impacting their schooling. The youngest was 16 years old, walking home through the park. Some of them, you could tell were nonproblematic children. Decent kids. Or for unreasonable noise. How do you define unreasonable noise?”
Edwards said MBBA would collaborate with clergy and law enforcement in the future to work on addressing the issuance of summonses.
In total, more than 800 people showed up during the two-day project.
Some had summonses for future court appearances that had not turned into warrants. The vast amount were warrants that were cleared. By allowing these cases to be adjudicated in Project Safe Surrender, it allows these people to apply for jobs, education programs, health services and other benefits without the low-level crimes hanging over their heads.
The hotline number for Project Safe Surrender is (718) 250-3888.