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Fugitive Safe Surrender: A Qualitative Analysis of Participants’ Reasons for Surrender and Anticipated Outcomes to Inform Program Evaluation

Published onNov 01, 2016
Fugitive Safe Surrender: A Qualitative Analysis of Participants’ Reasons for Surrender and Anticipated Outcomes to Inform Program Evaluation


The Fugitive Safe Surrender (FSS) program is a means for individuals with outstanding warrants to turn themselves in at a non-law-enforcement setting. Challenges remain in evaluating FSS program outcomes. Based on 211 participants’ demographic data and qualitative, open-ended written responses collected during an FSS event in a mid-sized Midwestern city, we analyze participants’ reasons for surrendering and anticipated outcomes of surrendering. Utilizing inductive thematic analysis of participants’ responses, we identify individual-level program outcomes that can be used for evaluating FSS. We additionally identify the intersection of codes among participant responses to demonstrate the inter-connectedness of FSS participants’ reasons and anticipated outcomes of surrendering. Family was identified as a life domain that cross-cut many identified themes in participants’ responses. The most prominent reasons for surrender included family, resolution of legal issues, and obtaining a driver’s license; the most common intersection of these themes included driver’s license/employment, employment/family, and decreasing worry/family. Common anticipated outcomes included obtaining a driver’s license, employment, and decreased worry; the most common intersection of these themes included driver’s license/employment; decreased worry/employment, and family/employment. We propose that these individual-level outcomes may be associated with increased social capital due to participants’ increased opportunities for maintaining familial networks and employment. Future evaluation of FSS should incorporate these individual-level outcomes to measure the effectiveness of warrant clearing for misdemeanors and felonies.


The Fugitive Safe Surrender (FSS) Program was established in 2005 by the U.S. Marshals Service as a means for individuals with outstanding warrants to safely turn themselves in at a non-law-enforcement setting (Flannery & Kretschmar, 2012; Flannery, 2013). Rather than facing imminent arrest, these individuals were provided the opportunity to resolve their outstanding legal issues in a safe, non-threatening environment: a faith-based organization. Intended benefits to the criminal justice system included reducing risks of violent altercations between community members and law enforcement officers serving warrants, decreasing warrant backlogs, and preventing increases in local jail populations (Cahill, 2012; Flannery & Kretschmar, 2012). Anticipated outcomes for individuals and communities were increasing neighborhood safety and increasing trust between law enforcement and the community (Flannery & Kretschmar, 2012, p. 438).

Cahill (2012) has identified challenges in measuring FSS’ anticipated effects, suggesting that intended outcomes such as decreasing risks of violence in serving warrants may not reflect the actual outcomes from local FSS operations. Nationally, the majority of individuals who accessed FSS had misdemeanor warrants; these included minor misdemeanors, but also major misdemeanors such as assaults, drug charges, domestic violence, and theft (Flannery, 2013, pps. 17-18). Given the legal characteristics of many FSS participants, Cahill (2012) suggests that risks of violence between law enforcement officers and those being served warrants may already be quite low for individuals with misdemeanor warrants. Consequently, intended program outcomes such as increased community safety may not be indicative of the actual outcomes of FSS (Tabarrok, 2012). This is not to dismiss the potential benefits of FSS. However, the discrepancies between who the program was intended to serve and the community members who took advantage of this program offer opportunities to realign program objectives and outcomes based on identified participant characteristics and motivations to surrender. Cahill (2012) suggests that these proximal, individual-level outcomes may be more measurable than distal outcomes such as community safety. These individual outcomes may in fact be the most measurable benefits of FSS.

Our goal within this qualitative study was to analyze FSS program participants’ reasons for surrender and anticipated outcomes to inform outcome measures and identify implications for the FSS program (Ritchie & Spencer, 2002). In this paper we qualitatively analyze urban Midwestern FSS participants’ reasons for surrender, and what participants think will change in their lives as a consequence of surrendering. Given that FSS demonstrates unique challenges in outcome evaluation, participant perspectives on why the program was utilized and expected outcomes are important considerations (Cahill, 2012; Flannery & Kretschmar, 2012; Ritchie & Spencer, 2002). Beyond process measures, such as participants’ socio-demographic and legal characteristics, criminal-justice-centered outcome measures such as numbers of warrants cleared may be the most measurable result of FSS.

Though more distal outcomes such as community safety or decreasing jail populations are challenging to measure, identifying FSS participants’ anticipated outcomes may identify individual-level program indicators. Through qualitative analysis of open-ended survey questions answered by participants at a medium-sized Midwestern city FSS site, we identify perspectives of program participants. These perspectives can be operationalized to either quantitatively or qualitatively measure individual-level outcomes. Drawing conclusions from our findings, we discuss implications for future FSS activities and offer suggestions as to how to link these individual-level measures with community outcomes.

Description of fugitive safe surrender: implementation and process data

The Fugitive Safe Surrender program (FSS) began as a partnership between the U.S. Marshals Service (USMS), local criminal justice agencies, and faith-based organizations (e.g., churches). The program seeks to “reduce the risk of dangerous arrest situations, make neighborhoods safer, and build trust between law enforcement officers and the community” (Flannery & Kretschmar, 2012, p. 438). During the four-day program individuals voluntarily surrender in order to resolve outstanding warrants and complete an intake form and voluntary survey. Individuals can also receive on-site access to public services such as the Department of Motor Vehicles. Two data collection instruments are used: an intake form used by law enforcement to identify the individual’s warrant status and a 17-item (primarily quantitative) survey instrument that collects participant demographics and self-reported warrant information. This survey includes three open-ended questions: “Who did you come here with?” and “In your own words, why did you come here today?” and “How will things change for you if you get your warrants cleared today?” Upon intake and survey completion, the individuals are assigned legal representation, go before a judge, and pay fines or fees as necessary (or, alternatively, are set up with a payment plan). In the majority of cases, FSS participants’ warrants are removed.

Over the five-year period that the program was under jurisdiction of the USMS, it was held 22 times in 20 U.S. cities, with 35,103 individuals surrendering (Flannery, 2013, p. 24). Nationally, the majority of participants were African American (74.9%) males (62.8%) with a mean age of 36 years (SD=11.5) (Flannery, 2013, p. 30). An unanticipated occurrence across sites was the number of participants who attended an FSS event who had no warrants found in the system. These FSS participants with no  warrants accounted  for 18% of all FSS participants across national sites (Flanner & Kretschmar 2012). Of the participants who did have an open warrant (n=21,901), 84% had a misdemeanor warrant, and the remaining had at least one felony warrant (Flannery, 2013, p. 32). Although USMS is no longer affiliated with the program, FSS has continued under the direction and funding of local law enforcement agencies. Since 2011, FSS has been implemented in at least six cities in Ohio and New Jersey.

Individuals with misdemeanor warrants primarily utilized FSS, rather than individuals with felony warrants, which reflects a different population of participants than anticipated  (Bierie,  2014;  Cahill, 2012;  Flannery & Kretchsmar, 2012; Tabarrok, 2012). Individuals are issued misdemeanor warrants for diverse reasons including suspicion of commission of a crime, failure to pay fees or fines, or failure to appear at a court hearing. However, they may also have major misdemeanors, such as domestic violence. Confirming past research, FSS participants reported failure to appear in court or failure to pay a fine as the most common reasons for having a warrant (Bierie, 2014; Guynes & Wolff, 2004). This suggests that FSS participants may  be qualitatively distinct from the population of individuals with felony warrants. For example, they may be primarily concerned with clearing warrants to maintain their community ties through employment (Flannery, 2013, p. 30). These types of warrants, indicative in many parts of the nation as revenue-generating mechanisms for municipalities, possibly inhibit individuals living near the poverty level from maintaining employment, which in turn decreases the likelihood of resolving their warrants through standard court proceedings (Balko, 2014). In addition to the economic barriers that contribute to persistent outstanding warrants, the limited research on outstanding warrants indicates that the legal status of “fugitive” also structures how individuals engage with their community, family, and employer.

“Fugitives”: Individuals with outstanding warrants

Warrant incidence data are limited (Bierie, 2014; Goldkamp, 2012). Bierie’s (2014) examination of the national warrant database, maintained by  the National Criminal Information Center (NCIC), provides the closest estimates to date on the incidence of felony-level warrants nationally. From data extracted from the NCIC database, 1.9 million outstanding felony warrants were identified. However, warrant data are captured inconsistently both between and within-states, contributing to decreased insight into the scope of outstanding warrants’ impact within communities and the legal system (Bierie, 2014). Further, this database includes felony warrants only. Nationally, communities have attempted to capture the number of outstanding warrants in their jurisdictions. In Missouri, for example, there were over 1.1 million outstanding warrants identified in June of 2013 (Shapiro, 2014). In 2013 in Ferguson, MO, there were more warrants issued than people residing in this municipality, reflecting the tremendous legal activity focused on issuing warrants within this particular community (Shapiro, 2014). These warrant data, although inconsistently collected, indicate significant numbers of people living with outstanding warrants. However, as demonstrated in the national FSS data, many of these warrants are due to missing court appearances, failure to pay fines, or the result of traffic violations (Flannery, 2013).

With such a high number of warrants, understanding the impact of this status on individuals’ lives and criminal trajectories. Further, understanding motivations for surrender can inform program development and evaluation. Unfortunately, there is limited research on individuals with warrants and even less on what motivates individuals to turn themselves in. Suggested innovations in fugitive research include investigation of individual’s experiences living with a warrant and utilization of mixed methods to investigate how open warrants affect individuals, their communities, and their engagement with public sector systems (Bierie, 2014, p. 431; Goldkamp, 2012, p. 336).

Goffman’s (2009) ethnographic study of Philadelphia men living with warrants provided insight on the impact of living with a warrant, or life “on the run,” and how community relations are affected by prevalence of outstanding warrants. For example, young urban African-American men with open warrants were shown to avoid regular contacts with family and to maintain inconsistent employment routines in order to decrease risks of arrest (Goffman, 2009, p. 351). Goffman’s analysis of these men’s social relations revealed how living “on the run” profoundly disrupts cultural norms surrounding familial and community ties. Goffman concluded that the restructuring of social relations grounded in specific community spaces, such as family’s homes, diminishes individuals’ opportunities to maintain positive social networks. This parallels national FSS data on individuals’ motivations to surrender; 66.6% of participants identified concerns over employment and family as reasons for surrender (Flannery, 2013, p. 30). These findings suggest that factors exogenous of the individual, such as family, may be important motivational drivers for program participation, and ultimately may be connected to other factors, such as employment. For example, is the maintenance of employment solely for the individual’s benefit, or do FSS program participants identify how employment connects to other aspects of their lives? In this study, we capitalize on qualitative methods’ ability to provide contextual, holistic understanding of program participation through identification of the intersection of participants’ responses. Thus, our analysis attempts to reveal the complex interplay of family, community, employment, and responsibility within FSS program participants’ motivations for surrender and their anticipated outcomes (Goffman, 2009).

Following from this, our study identifies two research questions:

  1. Why do individuals with warrants surrender?

  2. What do individuals think will change in their lives as a result of surrendering?

After analyzing results from questions 1 and 2, we discuss programmatic implications for FSS, including how contextual factors contribute to successful program participation.


FSS did not previously have an explicit theoretical model attached to     its operation, so an inductive, grounded approach was utilized to identify measurable program outcomes through analysis of responses to open-ended questions (Creswell, 2013; Flannery, 2013; Patton, 2015, p. 179-181; Strauss & Corbin, 1994). Analysis of these open-ended responses may also provide insight into contextual factors when interpreting descriptive and inferential statistics, and it may offer opportunities to see connections between outcomes in program participants’ lives (Patton, 2015, p. 184-186).

Data collection and analysis

Socio-demographic quantitative variables data and qualitative open-ended written responses were collected through a questionnaire provided to those presenting at the FSS location. The written responses we analyze are based on two open-ended questions in this questionnaire: “What are your reasons for surrendering” and “What do you think will change as a result of surrendering today?” “Reasons for surrendering” yielded a 72% rate of completion (152) and “anticipated life changes” yielded a 75% completion (158). All socio-demographic and criminal justice variables were entered into SPSS v.22. The two open-ended written responses were treated as qualitative data; they were entered verbatim into word processing software and then loaded into Atlas.ti, a qualitative analysis software. A codebook was  created, based on the emergent themes identified in the qualitative data, and utilized by the coders as a guide to reduce data and categories during the coding process (Bernard & Ryan, 2009, p. 56, 75).

Open thematic coding of FSS participants’ written responses was conducted by two coders in order to identify segments of open-ended responses reflective of the identified categories, contributing to dependability of analysis (Ulin et al., 2012). These coders had access to national results of  FSS participants’ open-ended responses to compare emergent themes during the coding process, which contributed to the “credible interpretations”  of our participants’ open-ended responses (Flannery, 2013, p. 30; Ulin et al., 2012). Discrepancies in coding were resolved through a constant comparative method across the data by the two coders for this research (first and second author) (Bernard & Ryan, 2009, p. 58). Reduction of data was arrived at through an iterative process in which themes were condensed into larger categories during coding.

Themes identified during the coding process were treated as categorical variables within SPSS and cross tabulations  were  conducted  in  order to identify how themes intersected in the data and corresponded to socio-demographic and criminal justice variables. For example, within the reason for surrender question, the open code family was coded numerically as 1 and the open code employment was coded as 2 in the SPSS file. Due to the possibility of multiple responses within each open-ended question, we were able to identify relationships among themes within each of the two open-ended response categories within our sample. Consequently, we were able to code for more than one reason for surrender and for more than one anticipated outcome among participants who provided multiple answers in their open-ended responses. We present the data within two distinct, but nonetheless overlapping, domains: Reasons for Surrender and Anticipated Life Changes. We do this based on the premise that these domains may not necessarily intersect. For example, individuals could indicate that their reason for surrender was to obtain a driver’s license, but they may pessimistically report that they do not expect this to occur or that they would also anticipate lessening of anxiety. Given, this, we analyze these two domains separately to identify such nuances in participants’ responses.


Sample description

The sample consisted of 211 individuals who voluntarily presented at a local church in a mid-sized Ohio city. Socio-demographics of these FSS participants are presented in Table 1 below.

Table 1. Socio-demographics of FSS participants (n=211)

Of the 211 individuals, 158 responded to the open-ended questions prior to confirming whether they had an open warrant. Consistent with previous FSS programs, nearly a quarter of those who surrendered at an FSS event had no warrant identified in the queried law enforcement databases and this information was communicated to those attendees (Flannery, 2013, p. 14) We included these individuals’ surveys within our analysis because often these individuals were certain that they had open warrants and we focused on exploring why any individuals utilized FSS and these individuals’ anticipated life changes. In terms of criminal offenses, 3.3% (7) of FSS presenters had     a felony offense. Of those with misdemeanors, 44.5% (94) had one misdemeanor, and 19.4% (41) had two misdemeanors (Table 1). The sample was composed of 61.6% (131) individuals of color (African Americans, Hispanic/ Latino, and “multi-racial”), 26.1%  (55) whites, and 12.6% (23) with  missing data. The sample consisted of 53.6% (113) men and 44.5% (94) women, with 4 individuals missing gender data (1.9%). In terms of family, 77.3% (163) reported they were not married and 69.2% (146) reported that they had children. Participants were given the opportunity to answer the question “Who did you come here with?” Of the 156 participants who answered this question, 54.5% (85) came with family, 32.7% (51) came alone, and 12.8% (20) came with another person. The mean age was 34 years (+/10.75) with the minimum age 19 years and the maximum 77 years.

Themes identified across reasons for surrender and anticipated life


In Table 2 below we identify the themes present across the two open-ended response domains. These results suggest that participants distinguished between the two survey questions although similarities exist across domains. Shared across both domains were the following: family, legal, driver’s license, employment, worry/fear, and attend school. The most frequently identified themes for Reasons for Surrender were family and legal. For Anticipated Life Changes, driver’s license and employment were the most frequently identified themes. The following themes were unique to Reason for Surrender: get it over with, want a life change, tired of running, and location of FSS. These themes included concepts of finally resolving legal issues (get it over with), changing one’s life circumstances (life change), and being mentally fatigued from their fugitive status (tired of running).

Table 2. Themes across reasons for surrender and anticipated life changes

Intersection of themes: Reasons for surrender and anticipated life changes

Table 3 and Table 4 present the intersection of themes within FSS participant responses across the two open-ended questions. This intersection of themes represents participants who provided intersecting reasons and multiple reasons within their responses. For example, of the participants who provided two Reasons for Surrender and who listed employment as a reason (n=15), five of these participants were also coded with family and six of these participants were also coded for driver’s license.

Table 3. Reasons for surrender for participants with two themes (n=44): Frequency of themes

Table 4. Anticipated life changes: Convergence of themes (n=54)

Similarly, for responses to Anticipated Life Changes, four areas were most frequently anticipated as changing as a result of surrender: employment, license reinstatement, family, and emotional concerns. These intersecting responses were not qualitatively different from other themes across FSS participants’ responses. That is, for participants who gave intersecting responses, neither employment nor family was discussed differently by participants.

Across the two domains, then, we present not only responses that have one theme, but also include responses with intersecting themes to demonstrate how these themes converged in participants’ lives. 

Reasons for surrender

Of the 211 participants, 41.7% (88) provided one reason for surrender, 19.9% (42) two reasons, 8.5% (18) three reasons, and 1.9% (4) provided four reasons. A little over a quarter of the participants (59) did not respond to this question. Table 3 indicates the themes identified within the category Reasons for Surrender. Of those who did respond to the question, the four most prominent themes identified within this category were family (32.9%, 50), legal (28.3%, 43), obtaining a driver’s license (25.0%, 38), and employment (19.1%, 29).

Table 5. Reason for surrender: Frequency of themes


More female than male participants indicated that their reason for surrender was family (n=26 vs. n=20 responses). Participants were focused on supporting their families and children; they were worried about the possibility of going to jail for warrants and consequently not being able to provide for or be with their family. The following quotes reflect these concerns:

I am so sick of hurting my family and my son who needs his mother. And in order to move forward I have to take care of this. I am so scared to go to jail but this is the right thing to do. And I have to start somewhere. I am sick of the lies and the hurt.—32 year old White female

I have a family depending on me that I put at risk every time I’m around them because I don’t want to traumatize my children with the sight of me getting arrested or running from or being chased by the police. I want to get it over with so      I can get back to working and providing for my family and without warrants.—20 year old African-American male

Participants who identified family as a reason for surrender also indicated how family were relying on them as caregivers and as examples for behavior, or relying on their current income or possible future income. Below, a woman’s response reflects her concerns as a caregiver, as well as how surrendering would result in decreased anxiety:

I came here today because I just wanna start over and not worry about having these worries. I think about this everyday and I’m afraid to go to jail. My kids needs me and I just wanna take care of these warrants and start my life over. I pray about this every night and I just really didn’t want to turn myself in right now. I don’t have any income to pay fines/ bond but I will take care of it and start making payments as soon as possible.—African-American female, age unknown 

An important characteristic of the sample should be highlighted. Over three quarters (77.3%, 163) of the sample reported that they were not married, but 69.2% (146) reported having children. This is an important consideration for understanding reasons for surrender when participants discussed family; children were the primary motivator for surrender, rather than extended family or spouse. This suggests that participants were motivated by reasons other than their own immediate circumstances or needs, and that family networks were an important motivator for their behavior.

As the category name implies, participants identified that the legal consequences of an open warrant were the primary motivation for their surrender. These responses discussed legal issues such as paying fines/court costs, having an open warrant, and wanting to get pending legal matters cleared up. These responses were generally more succinct than other discussions regarding family, as reflected in the following quotes:

I would like to get my record straightened out.—40 year old White female

Hoping to clear things up and prevent any warrants or future actions to take place. I’m finally doing something with myself. I would like to get this cleared up and continue forward.—27 year old African-American female

These  responses  indicate  that  the  community-wide  communication  of FSS (Flannery, 2013) had delivered the intended message and that this resonated with participants. Attendance at FSS provided individuals a safe opportunity to resolve legal issues by addressing open warrants, avoiding incarceration, and paying fines and court costs.

Obtaining a driver’s license

Participants also indicated that clearing up warrants was directly related to obtaining their driver’s license. In a national sample of participants, this accounted for 47% of participants’ reasons for surrender (Flannery, 2013), but within the sample for our study this accounted for 25% of responses. Examples of responses are reflected below:

I would like to start the process of getting my driver’s license in order. The warrants are not going to let me start the process to try and get them back.—45 year old African-American female

To get my tickets taken care of with a pay arrangement and be able to get my driver’s license so I can drive to and from work.—33 year old African-American female

Not unexpectedly, obtaining a driver’s license was associated with achieving autonomy in the community, and participants discussed being able to get to and from work as well as school.


Participants also identified that clearing up warrants was linked to obtaining employment or ensuring that current employment was not interrupted. Responses reflective of the employment theme included the following:

I want to get it taken care of so I can get a job and be a productive citizen.—African-American male, age unidentified

Also I have a great job now that I don’t want to lose on account of having this warrant.—32 year old African-American male

Open warrants, which may be linked to the inability to obtain a driver’s license, may also affect, for example, employment opportunities. Employers may complete a background checks and discover open warrants on an applicant’s record, further decreasing employment opportunities. Clearing warrants provided participants opportunities to apply for employment, travel to and from work, and maintain employment.

Get it over with

Get it over with (17.0%, 26) was a theme that reflected participants’ weariness of the legal issues hanging over their heads. Responses in this category are reflected in the statement below:

Back when I committed all these crimes I was on drugs bad. Now I’m clean and have a job. Want to get all this behind me.—20 year old white female

Such responses reflected less concrete aspects of participants’ lives, such as employment opportunities and family relationships. Instead, these responses identified how surrender was linked to moving forward with their lives in a positive manner. More abstract in nature, these responses reflected a temporal structuring of their lives, in which surrendering and addressing warrants marked a shift in their lives to something better.

Reasons for surrender: Worry/fear

Participant statements reflecting anxiety or stress over their warrants, comprised 14% (21) of the identified themes.

I came in to just clear up my issues and not fear leaving my home.—26 year old White female

I want to get on with my life in a peaceful manner, not being scared and running.—30 year old White female I came here today because I am tired of the constant feeling of being afraid every time I seen a police officer.—22 year old African-American male

Similar to the get it over with category, responses in this category reflected more abstract concerns, rather than material issues such as employment or a driver’s license. Participants who indicated worry/fear noted that having an open warrant generated affective distress.

Anticipated life changes

Table 6 indicates the frequencies for the number of Anticipated Life Changes responses.

Table 6. Anticipated life changes: Frequency of themes

Of the 211 participants 40.8% (86) gave one reason, 25.6% (54) gave two reasons, 6.2% (13) gave three reasons, and 1.4% (3) gave four reasons. Table 4 indicates the themes identified within the category Anticipated Life Changes. Of the 156 participants who identified what changes would occur as a result of surrendering, 55 identified driver’s license (35.3%), 52 indicated employment (33.3%), 48 indicated decreased feelings of worry (30.8%), 28 identified move forward (18.0%) and 26 participants indicated family concerns (16.7%). In addition to descriptions of material concerns such as family and employment, emotionally-laden responses were identified. For example, individuals expressed negative emotions, such as worry and fear, would decrease in their lives as a result of surrendering. Participants less prominently identified the ability to be more responsible, moving forward with their lives, having legal matters resolved, and school attendance. Similar to why individuals surrendered, there was a convergence of themes, which shifted from individuals’ immediate concerns to concerns with family.

Driver’s license

Men (n=26) and women (n=28) nearly equally reported that reinstating their licenses would change their lives. Just as in the responses to “Why individuals surrendered,” here obtaining a driver’s license contributed to individuals’ autonomy. Participants also went further and described concretely how a license would affect other aspects of their lives. For example, participants identified that driving privileges impacted job promotion or obtaining a better job. This is evidenced by the following statement:

I can finally get my license so I can have steady transportation back and forth to work. I won’t continue to live my life in fear that people I ride with won’t get pulled over with me in the car. And once I have my fines paid off, I can work on school.—20 year old African-American female

Reinstatement of license was also related to seeking or maintaining employment:

A lot better for me, no worries, and I can even try harder with my search for a job and bet there more so for my son and daughter.—42 year old African-American female

Driving privileges was the most common theme mentioned by participants when describing expected life changes. Without a valid license, individuals reported difficulties with completing daily tasks and, in some cases, this even held people back from gaining a promotion or seeking better employment. Not surprisingly, employment and family were two life domains significantly impacted by having a license.


Participants who identified life changes related to employment provided more detailed responses that reflected intersecting concerns. Participants expressed changes such as being able to obtain a job, continuing at a current job without fear of arrest, and contributing to job promotion or finding a better job. The following statements reflect how clearing warrants and employment were linked to participants’ anticipated life changes:

If I could get things cleared up when I leave from here I’m going to fill out my app—to try and get a job! I don’t have to worry about going through this again because I’m never [sic] put in a situation like this.—19 year old African-American female

I have a pretty good job with the chance to be hired in permanently with benefits and a pension. And I love the work that I am doing.—32 year old White male

Participants described warrant status affecting all stages of employment, from filling out an application, to getting hired, to risk of termination, to getting a better job or promotion. Similar to employment, a few participants (n=8) expressed that attendance at school could occur now that they had surrendered. Participants described returning to school and completing their degree.

Emotionally-laden responses

Individuals also anticipated reduced stress and anxiety caused by worries surrounding a possible arrest. Participants gave examples of feelings of relief and peace of mind, less fear and worry of getting caught, and reductions in stress-induced symptoms connected to their warrant status.

I can stop worrying and sleep much easier. I can get a job now or try to find one and I can stop worrying about the police and the fear of going to jail.—African-American female (no age identified)

The situation will be behind me and I won’t have to look over my shoulders.—37 year old African-American female

I will feel relieved. My probation is up in December. I just want to be done with court related stuff. I’m a good person. I don’t belong in jail or the system.—23 year old White female

These responses reflect the anxiety-provoking experience of having an open warrant and being perpetually vigilant due to the possibility of arrest. Participants also identified that they could start “living” their life; before surrendering they were numb or lacking control. The program provided a place for individuals to be renewed and gain control over aspects of themselves, including their emotions.

Ability to move forward in life

More abstract in nature, moving forward and starting over were expected life changes. Moving forward was interpreted as a metaphor for life improvement. Similar to the theme get it over with these themes represented a positive shift in participants’ lives. These abstract statements about moving away from the past and into the future were often connected to more concrete aspects of their lives, such as family and employment. A participant expressed the relationship between reduced fear and moving forward in life:

I will no longer have to worry about anything over my head and can move forward with my life.—26 year old White female

Another individual stated that he could start over and move on in his career:

I will be able to start fresh and move on in my life as well as my career—20 year old White male

Clearing open warrants also provided participants with an opportunity for a new start, unburdened from legal concerns, and allowed them to resign this episode of their lives to the past:

I can have a clean slate and start over. Put everything in the past and start over.—27 year old African-American male

Handling warrants seemed to be a step in a process of personal improvement for many respondents as surrendering created an opportunity to improve themselves and not dwell on the past. Participants described being able to put the past behind them in order to attain sometimes tangible, concrete tasks (such as paying off fines) but more often to attain more abstract concerns (such as improving one’s life or moving on in one’s career). Warrant status was viewed as inhibitive and there was a sense of gaining autonomy and personal power as a result of surrendering.


Participants anticipated a new potential to fulfill their caregiver role, a new ability to set good examples for family, and a chance to no longer feel fearful of losing family members due to their warrant status. For example, a participant explained how her family could now depend on her:

I can get a job and get housing for my children and I. Because I am currently homeless and have no income and my grandma is my power of attorney.—26 year old African-American female

Participants described being positive role models towards their family: I can start over, get my license and CDL back, set a good example for my kids and grandkids.—48 year old White male

Participants also identified relief that they would no longer be fearful of losing family members due to outstanding warrants:

Less stress, no more cases to worry about. I can worry about work, school, and my son without the worry of seeing handcuffs.—25 year old White male

I can start fresh and continue working at my job without the fear of being taken to jail losing my job and most of all my family.—22 year old African-American male

These responses were often connected to other themes, such as license, employment, and worry. For respondents who identified family-related changes, 81% (21 of the 26 responses) of the responses had at least one other theme identified. Participants expressed how reductions in fear and worry would have a positive impact on their family. They were able to focus on family instead of being preoccupied with their warrant status and how this status consequently affected their lives.

Increased responsibility

Responsibility is an abstract concept, with limited concrete examples reflecting this theme. Therefore, particular statements were interpreted to mean that individuals would have the ability to follow through on obligations. The statements categorized as responsibility included assertions such as being a good citizen, obligations to community and the law, and doing the right thing, as well as explicitly stating the word responsible.

I will be more responsible for my life and handling matters of this sort that prevent me from bettering myself.—40 year old African-American male

Additionally, getting a warrant cleared and re-instating a license were identified as steps towards responsibility:

But I’m gonna pray about it ask God for some help and hopefully when I get everything cleared up I will be able to get my driver’s license back. I wanna do all the right things in life, I’m a grown man, I wanna feel safe and responsible.—32 year old African-American male

Turning oneself in was a responsible act for individuals, in and of itself. Similar to legal concerns, anticipated changes related to legal matters were reported for 6.4% (n=10) of the sample. Participants conveyed that having their legal matters resolved impacted other aspects of their lives, such as reporting to probation or reinstating their driving privileges.

Conclusion and discussion

In FSS participants’ open-ended written responses, family was the most frequently cited reason for surrender; over half of participants in this study indicated that they attended the FSS event with family. Family, identified both as a reason for surrender and an anticipated life change, was expected, given current research. Family, and in particular parenthood, has consistently been identified as a turning point in desistance from crime (King, Massoglia, & MacMillan, 2007; Sampson, Laub, & Wimer, 2006). The aspects of attachment to family attributed to crime desistance include social bonding, withdrawal from deviant peers, and/or social control by spouse (Burt et al., 2010). In our current study, only about 25% (22.7%) reported as married. Kerr, Capaldi, Owen, Wiesner, and Pears’ (2015) longitudinal study of cohabitating, married, and single men found a reduction in criminal involvement for married men, but no differences between cohabitating and single men. It is not clear then, if the FSS participants had relationships that were more similar to positive aspects within marriages than cohabitating; likely, parenthood or attachment to family may have also been a factor in a decision to surrender.

Parenthood has also been identified as a turning point resulting in desistance from crime (Capaldi, Kerr, Eddy, & Tiberio, 2015). Capaldi et al. (2015) found that co-residence with children and the parenthood transition at an older versus younger age helped to explain this relationship. Within our sample, not only was family identified as a theme, but the majority of participants reported surrendering with a family member. Consequently, within our sample, both marriage and parenthood may provide motivation to resolve open warrants. Given that family was the most frequently cited reason for surrender, and family members were most frequently identified as accompanying an individual to surrender, these results also suggest that individuals were motivated by more than their own individual interests (such as not wanting to endure jail time) or concerns over legal issues.

Unsurprisingly, resolution of legal issues was a prominent theme identified in the reasons for surrender, and this reflects FSS’ ability to target participation among individuals who perceived an inherent value of FSS as an opportunity to clear warrants. Employment and obtaining a driver’s license were also prominent themes among participants, reflective of how having an open warrant was identified as having a profound impact on participants’ ability to obtain and maintain viable work.

Anticipated life changes reflected similar domains as discussed above: driver’s license, employment, affect-related, and family. These FSS participants had low-level warrants, so it was not surprising that these particular overlapping themes were identified. Individuals reported that resolving warrants would avoid disruptions to these domains; that is, there was a perception that their lives would no longer be inhibited by their warrant status.

The identification of themes beyond self-interest in both Reasons for Surrender and Anticipated Life Changes identifies program outcomes both at the individual level and community level that would benefit from refinement. These identified outcomes also provide a means to theorize how individual outcomes may be linked to community-level outcomes. This linkage offers an opportunity to enhance and expand FSS program theory beyond individual-level factors (e.g., Flannery, 2013). For example, FSS participants identified significant concerns regarding family, pro-social activities (such as obtaining a driver’s license and employment), and sustaining emotional health. Measurable quantitative outcomes for FSS participants may include, then, employment stability or obtaining employment; obtaining a driver’s license; and frequency and density of familial social networks pre- and post-surrender. Additionally, qualitative outcomes may utilize thick descriptive narratives to identify how individuals’ lives change as a result of surrendering, such as how employment, family, and driver’s licenses intersect within an individual’s life before and after surrendering.

This qualitative study of FSS participants had several limitations. The data are responses to survey questions; there were no follow-up questions or probes to clarify or expand statements. Results are not necessarily representative of individuals in geographically diverse cities, as this  sample was from a medium-sized city in the Midwest. The representativeness of the results for all warrant populations is not clear; the FSS program is open to both felony and misdemeanant individuals, but the current study primarily comprised individuals with misdemeanor warrants. Data was only available for individuals who surrendered. This is a study limitation, and future studies could include warrant and demographic information on those who do not surrender to identify if there are differences between the two groups. It is unknown what motivations were present for those who did not surrender and if these motivations are similar or different from the results in this study. There were individuals who surrendered that did not have an open warrant. It was unclear if they had a warrant in a different jurisdiction that was not included in the warrant check. Given these limitations, this study identifies implications for the FSS program and its potential participants.

Over two-thirds of FSS participants also identified they attended an FSS event with someone (i.e., family or friend). Given that participants’ reasons for surrender included family networks, marketing the program as beneficial for one’s family should be highlighted as an incentive to participate. The program also assists individuals  in  achieving  pro-social  goals,  such  as obtaining a driver’s license and employment. The program additionally provides individuals with a “second chance” as evidenced in participants’ statements regarding making changes in their lives. FSS may also offer possibilities of regaining and strengthening ties in communities that are characterized by restrictive opportunities due to structural disadvantages. This can be achieved by closing warrants, which without FSS services could entail an individual’s lengthy and challenging negotiation of the criminal justice system. In particular, limited resources to engage with the criminal justice system (e.g., the ability to take days off from work), could further decrease the likelihood of clearing a warrant. Open warrants also place a persistent burden on the criminal justice system. FSS enables a more efficient means to clear warrants, by establishing a cost-effective, non-threatening engagement with community members to surrender.

In terms of program theory, social capital is a construct that may link these participant-identified outcomes to FSS stakeholders’ anticipated community outcomes. Social capital is conceptualized as the available resources that are embedded within individuals’ social networks and can include instrumental, social, and emotional support (Coleman, 1988; Furstenberg, 2005; Reisig, Holtfreter, & Morash 2002). An absence of such resources is evident in Goffman’s (2009) ethnographic participants; fugitive status diminished their ability to provide support for family members or negatively restructured community social networks. Arrests, stemming from open warrants, can further erode the limited social capital available to individuals in poor neighborhoods (Reisig et al., 2002).

Recent examples of these processes have been reported in Saint Louis County, for example. Individuals cited for traffic violations or lapsed registration and insurance have warrants issued for their arrest. They become mired in local legal systems that are primarily revenue-generating mechanisms for municipalities (Balko, 2014). Individuals with outstanding warrants may be enmeshed in poverty or living marginally above the poverty level, and may therefore have no surplus income to pay court costs and fines or not be aware of their payment options. Continued enmeshment in the legal system may precipitate financial ruin for many individuals with outstanding warrants, which can contribute, for example, to diminished opportunities for employment or to provide support to families. These individuals, who may have a stake in their communities as family members, caregivers, or breadwinners may benefit more from FSS events than from the criminal justice system. It is reasonable to theorize, then, that individual-level outcomes such as reinstating a driver’s license may increase an individual’s social capital by expanding mobility and increasing access to resources outside of their community.

Granovetter (1973) first identified the link between micro-level indicators and macro-level structures, suggesting that micro and macro aspects are not distinct, but should be conceptualized as inter-connected. Thus, having one’s warrant rescinded may enhance an individual’s social capital by enabling consistent access to an individual’s social network. Conversely, arrests stemming from low level misdemeanor warrants may enhance deterioration of already limited and fragile social capital indicative of poor urban minority communities (Reisig et al., 2002). In our respondents’ statements, the clearing of a warrant would ensure maintenance of family ties and increase employment opportunities through social mobility (i.e., obtaining a driver’s license). Measuring individual-level outcomes is a first step, then, in exploring the relationship between FSS program outcomes and community-level outcomes. Future research should focus on the development of an FSS logic model that utilizes program theory as a means to identify and measure the links between individual-level outcomes (such as obtaining a driver’s license) and community-level outcomes (such as community safety) (Wholey, Hatry, & Newcomer, 2010). Gathering information from key stakeholders (e,g., program participants) is a critical initial step in the development of such a logic model in order to facilitate the goals of FSS (Wholey et al., 2010).


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Joseph D Galanek Ph.D., MPH is a Senior Qualitative Methodologist at ICF in Atlanta, GA. An applied medical anthropologist with public health and mental health services training, his research has been funded through the Ohio Department of Mental Health, the National Science Foundation, and the National Institute of Mental Health. He currently is lead qualitative methodologists for a SAMHSA funded supported employment and behavioral health treatment court, and a CDC funded health campaign. He has provided technical oversight and was lead qualitative analyst for comprehensive evaluation activities for the Centers for Disease Control’s Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention and Division of Cancer Prevention and Control. His previous research focused on utilizing qualitative methods to investigate the social and cultural drivers of psychiatric recovery for individuals with severe mental illness and co-occurring substance abuse disorders who are involved in the criminal justice system. He has conducted ethnographic fieldwork in men’s maximum security prisons, and conducted mixed methods evaluations for urban behavioral health systems. He has an extensive history of implementing behavioral healthcare services in criminal justice settings and providing direct clinical case management services for individuals with severe mental illness and co-occurring substance abuse disorders within correctional institutions.

Janelle Duda-Banwar, MSW is a Doctoral Candidate at Case Western Reserve University’s Jack, Joseph, and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences. Her research fellowship is at the Begun Center for Violence Prevention, Research, and Education. She received her MSW from California State University, Long Beach and her BSW from Xavier University in Cincinnati. Her primary research interests are interpersonal gun violence and criminaljustice involved populations, specifically those living with outstanding arrest warrants. She also studies effective teaching strategies and the ethical and moral development of undergraduate students.

Daniel Flannery Ph.D. is the Dr. Semi J. and Ruth W. Begun Professor and Director of the Begun Center for Violence Prevention, Research and Education at the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at Case Western Reserve University. From 1998 through 2010 he served as founding director of the Institute for the Study and Prevention of Violence at Kent State University. He is senior editor of the Cambridge Handbook of Violent Behavior and Aggression (2007) for Cambridge University Press and author of Violence and Mental Health in Everyday Life (2006) and Wanted on Warrants: The Fugitive Safe Surrender Program (2013). Dr. Flannery has over 100 peer reviewed publications on youth violence prevention, the link between violence and mental health, and community-based program evaluation. He has generated over 30 million dollars in externally funded research and has served as advisor to various national organizations including the Institute of Medicine, the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Crime Prevention Council and the National Resource Center for Safe Schools.

Jeff Kretschmar, Ph.D is a Research Assistant Professor at the Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences of Case Western Reserve University and Managing Director of the Begun Center for Violence Prevention Research and Education at Case Western Reserve University’s Jack, Joseph, and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences. He is also co-director of the Partnership for Evaluation, Research, and Implementation and has published in the areas of childhood mental health, trauma, juvenile justice, and exposure to violence. Dr. Kretschmar has served as the Principle Investigator (PI) on multiple local, state, and federal evaluation grants. He is the PI for a the statewide evaluation of the Behavioral Health Juvenile Justice (BHJJ) initiative, a diversion program for juvenile justice-involved youth with mental and behavioral health issues. He is also the PI for the evaluation of Cuyahoga County’s Defending Childhood Initiative, a United States Department of Justice-funded program designed to reduce and eliminate childhood exposure to violence and the associated traumatic consequences. Dr. Kretschmar has previously served as Project Director for the Institute for the Study and Prevention of Violence (ISPV) at Kent State University and was Assistant Professor of Psychology at Wesley College in Dover, Delaware. Jeff received his Ph.D. in Social Psychology from Miami University.

Fredrick Butcher, Ph.D. is a Senior Research Associate at the Begun Center for Violence Prevention Research and Education in the Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at Case Western Reserve University. His research areas include youth violence, trauma, juvenile justice, and measurement in criminal justice research and his work has been published in a number of journals in the criminal justice and social work fields.


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