updated 12/21/2008 4:27:34 AM ET 2008-12-21T09:27:34

James Williams was busted for drug possession when Philadelphia police raided a friend's house while he was visiting. After he missed a court date, the 24-year-old became a fugitive, and couldn't apply for a job or collect disability for fear of tipping off authorities to his whereabouts.

He lived like that for six months, too scared to show up at a police station and unable to get his life together while hiding in society's shadows.

Williams was one of 1,246 Pennsylvania fugitives to voluntarily turn himself in during a four-day safe-surrender program in September.

New Jersey's safe surrender last month attracted 2,245 people, including a woman who was nine months pregnant and wanted on a drug possession charge. The program at Antioch Baptist Church in Camden, one of the nation's most impoverished cities, was among the most successful on record, according to the U.S. Marshals Service.

Camden was the 12th American city to host Fugitive Safe Surrender, which has resulted in 17,137 people with outstanding arrest warrants turning themselves in. It began in Cleveland in 2005 in response to the killing of a city police officer by a fugitive, and was authorized by Congress the next year.

"I was kind of nervous and scared about going to the courts and getting it done," said Williams, whose charges were dropped the day he surrendered. "More than definitely, I would tell people to go this route. I've seen somebody come with a warrant. It ain't nothing pretty. They might come for you at 2 or 3 in the morning. You just never know when they're coming."

The program is geared to nonviolent offenders, but no one is turned away — and people wanted for violent crimes could get snagged. Many cases are decided on the spot, with public defenders, superior and municipal court judges and makeshift courtrooms on site. Child care and an array of social service and job training agencies are available so fugitives can tap into services they've been unable to access while on the lam.

Most of the nonviolent fugitives — people wanted for drug possession or theft — return home the same day they surrender after being processed or given a court date for later, said U.S. Marshal for New Jersey Jim Plousis.

Hundreds line up
In Camden, the on-site courtrooms were quickly overwhelmed as fugitives began lining up at 5 a.m. One man drove from Ohio; another came from Newark, about 50 miles to the north, after hiding out for 26 years. On the first day, three judges oversaw the proceedings and 150 people were on line. By day four, three more judges were added to handle the influx, which had reached 1,000 people, Plousis said.

Sgt. Sharon Longinetti, who heads the State Parole Board's Fugitive Apprehension Unit, said peaceful surrender programs remove the dangers associated with fugitive takedowns.

"They can stop looking over their shoulder," she said. "These people can't get legal jobs because we'll find them that way. This is an opportunity for them to stop worrying about somebody knocking on their door and taking them back to jail."

"My guys go out all over the state to apprehend fugitives," she added. "They're putting their safety on the line every day, in addition to the fugitive's safety and the safety of whoever they're living with."

With such a smooth operation, New Jersey Parole Board Chairman Peter Barnes Jr., who spent decades in the FBI, wonders why the program wasn't offered before now. Fugitive operations are at best tense, and at worst, violent. Often the fugitive is not alone, so others are put at risk when armed marshals storm a home.

"We used to tell them in the FBI, 'You want to go head first or you want to go feet first. It's up to you how you want to handle it,"' said Barnes.

Weary of living on the lam
In Camden, 682 fugitives had their cases resolved the day they surrendered and 1,563 were given vouchers to return to court this month. Eighty-three had no active warrants against them, and nine people were arrested because they'd committed major felonies, including a state prison escapee and two drug dealers.

With his record now clear, Williams is looking for part-time work on the books and receiving disability for chronic injuries sustained in a fire when he was a child.

His is a typical story. Fugitives turn themselves in because they've grown weary of living on society's fringes. Relatives often encourage them to straighten out their legal problems. Many have breathed a sign of relief afterward, telling Plousis, "Now I can get a job."

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