Polk Ecumenical Action Council for Empowerment
Polk Ecumenical Action Council for Empowerment (PEACE) was founded in 2001 when two local clergy, one Catholic priest and one African American Baptist pastor, came together and began voicing concerns about overwhelming problems in the community. PEACE exists in Polk County as a vehicle for congregations to do effective and powerful justice ministry. Currently, PEACE has 20 member congregations that are located throughout Polk County, representing over 20,000 residents and are diverse in their socio-economic, racial, denominational and geographic backgrounds. Congregations in PEACE work together to build relationships with one another, listen to common concerns, research community problems, and then take action to see that systems in the community are held accountable to principles of justice and get to the root cause of serious problems. PEACE also strengthens leadership among minorities, low-income individuals and others suffering from prejudice, oppression, and neglect as it provides an avenue for those who are usually voiceless to take a powerful role in transforming their community.
Since PEACE’s beginning in 2001, we have taken successful action on several community issues. Listed below is a sample of some of the issue victories of the organization.
Healthcare: Polk County has the first and third busiest emergency rooms in the state of Florida and there are over 120,000 people without insurance or insufficient insurance coverage.
In 2002, over 200 people attended house meetings. Dozens of people told stories about lack of insurance, waiting 6 hours in the ER, large medical bills, and delaying medical care because of the high cost. After hearing these stories, over 200 PEACE leaders voted to address the problem of access to healthcare. At the time, the county budgeted only four million dollars to provide healthcare for the uninsured. An outside consultant gave the sales tax a 5% chance of passing, but PEACE pastors and members pushed and the tax passed with 62% of the vote in March of 2004.
At the 2005 Action, PEACE received a commitment from county commissioners to open five primary care clinics. To date, all five clinics have opened:
The Lakeland Primary Care Clinic opened in November 2007.
The Winter Haven Clinic opened in May 2011.
The Lakeland Family Health Center opened in July 2012.
The Lake Wales Clinic opened summer of 2016.
And on April 10th, 2017, the fifth clinic opened in Haines City.
By the time all of the clinics are operating at full capacity, they will serve over 30,000 people annually with primary care, dental care, mental health care, and other health care services.
In November 2016, we successfully pushed for the renewal of the healthcare tax. The $35-$40 million each year will continue to provide health care to over 48,000 people per year for the next 28 years.
Drug Rehabilitation: Over 40,000 people are addicted to drugs and alcohol in Polk County. 10,000 people leaving the jails every year would seek treatment if it were available to them. However, when we began to look at the problem, there were only 25 in-patient rehabilitation beds and all were reserved for women.
In 2009, Commissioner Bob English and the County staff committed to adding 100 in-patient drug rehabilitation beds to help people break the cycle of addiction. In 2011, 50 beds were opened for men and an additional 48 beds were opened for women in 2012 through the Hope Now program. In 2014, the program served 500 families and had 38 graduates.
Beginning in 2001 and continuing on in the years 2008-2010, PEACE also prevented funding for the in-jail substance abuse program (JASA) from being cut from the budget. In 2014, JASA had 221 admissions for treatment services and 127 men and women graduated the program.
Youth Arrests: Polk County has the highest rate of youth arrests in Florida. In the fall of 2011, 300 people attended house meetings and dozens of people told stories of children getting arrested for minor offenses. One student was arrested for accidentally tripping someone in the classroom. A 6-year-old was arrested for throwing an eraser. Two siblings fighting over an iPad were arrested for domestic violence.
Almost 1,000 children are arrested every year for a first-time minor offense in Polk County. Every year, almost 300 children under the age of 14 are arrested. Arrest records are public through FDLE for background checks – making it hard to get jobs, enter the military, obtain college scholarships, and pass licensing boards.The best way to make sure that no criminal record exists is to use proven diversion programs prior to an arrest.
PEACE found that through the current diversion program, Teen Court:
- Over half of the children are arrested prior to diversion, meaning they still have a criminal record with FDLE.
- Teen Court didn’t accept children under the age of 10.
- 7 out of 8 times, children are brought to the Juvenile Assessment Center to be arrested and fingerprinted before recommendation to a diversion program – there was no prevention step to stop the records from being sent to the FDLE.
Our findings confirmed that Polk County needed easier access to non-arrest diversion. In March 2014, the Superintendent of schools committed to implement best practices to reduce school based arrests and, at PEACE’s urging, Teen Court removed their age restrictions to allow children under the age of 10. School-based arrests have decreased 41% by utilizing non-arrest diversion. In April 2017, PEACE pushed the State Attorney to write a memo of understanding that allows for a protected database at the Juvenile Assessment Center and the Sheriff committed to use it so that children would be given true diversion. In June 2017, that document was signed by all 17 municipalities and diversion was made available for the first time. From June 2017 to May 2018, 920 children were offered a non-arrest diversion and the county went from a 0% diversion rate to an 80% diversion rate, on average, in 2018. Since 2012, PEACE has decreased overall arrests by 75%.
Transportation: At our 2013 Nehemiah Action, we got the Director of Transit to increase access to bus stops in the underserved areas of Haines City and Mulberry, serving over 1,000 new families.
Read more about PEACE in the news.
PO Box 1928
Lakeland, FL 33803