Faith leaders urge state lawmaker to support juvenile justice bill

December 21, 2015. Florida Times-Union.

“Jingle Bells” wafted through The Jacksonville Landing as about three dozen people stood on its front steps and prayed.
“Fill the hearts of our public officials with the fire of your love, and with the desire to ensure justice for our children,” they recited in unison. “May we secure equality for all our brothers and sisters throughout the state.”

ICARE: ‘People power’ promotes social change in Jacksonville

Tuesday, April 21, 2015.

Ebonee Williams (left) and Ke’yanna Lamar from Frank H. Peterson Academies of Technology talk about how the Restorative Justice program has helped them stay in school and move ahead with their lives. Leaders from church congregations across Jacksonville met Monday evening for the ICARE Nehemiah Assembly at the Potter’s House off Normandy Boulevard in Jacksonville. The Interfaith Coalition for Action, Reconciliation and Empowerment pressed city leaders to improve issues with youth crime, education, jobs and mental health issues and highlighted successes stemming from the previous ICARE events.

Seniors Ke’yanna Lamar and Ebonee Williams, who have leadership roles in Frank H. Peterson Academies of Technology’s student court, have seen up close how restorative justice can redirect the lives of troubled teens at their Jacksonville high school.

The program calls for students who commit code-of-conduct violations to go through mediation with accountability boards of fellow students or staff. The goal is to address the cause of a student’s behavior problem through in-school and community programs, rather than taking a zero-tolerance approach with out-of-school suspensions or worse, they told an interfaith assembly Monday night.

“I am really proud of the program. It allows us to deal with issues in our school,” Ke’yanna said.

Mentoring, counseling or help with family or academic issues, combined with some method of making amends, are a more productive deterrent to youth crime than punishment, the student leaders said.

“There is something deeper going on,” Ebonee said. “We need to find the real reason, find out what is really going on.”

Restorative justice is one of the key recommendations made over the last few years by the interfaith group, the Interfaith Coalition for Action, Reconciliation and Empowerment, or ICARE. At the Monday night assembly, members of the nonprofit’s 38 congregations received progress reports on that and other recommendations made to the school district, city government and other agencies.

Many of them have been or soon will be implemented: restorative justice and direct instruction in some Duval schools, a day resource center for the homeless, a task force and study to spur economic development in Northwest Jacksonville through employee-owned businesses and a model to decrease mental health-care waiting lists.

“People power is present and growing,” said co-president Kent Dorsey, pastor of Riverside Avenue Christian Church. “We have taken another big step toward a fair and just Jacksonville.”

But ICARE members were encouraged to keep up the pressure to ensure continued funding and progress.

“The people of Jacksonville need to know they will be heard,” said Eugene Diamond, pastor of Abyssinia Baptist Church. “We will not be discouraged if the journey is long.”

Schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has implemented restorative justice in 87 Duval schools. The program is part of a “culture change” to use code-of-conduct violations as opportunities for teaching, rather than punishment, he said.

As a result, out-of-school suspensions have dropped from 20,000 to 8,000 in one year, he said.

There also is a community component of restorative justice — civil citations issued by law enforcement for minor, non-violent offenses by youth, rather than arrests. Neighborhood accountability boards handle the mediation process between offenders and victims and mete out community service and restitution plans.

The boards have been set up in three areas — the Northside, Westside and Beaches — and have given 150 youth ”second chances,” said ICARE member Geneva Pittman.

Each civil citation costs about $400 to process, compared to $5,000 to prosecute arrests, she said.

“This is fiscally responsible not just socially responsible,” she said.

Faith community holds forum on juvenile justice, calls for local police to issue more civil citations

January 24, 2015. The Florida Times-Union.

Members of the local faith community say the city’s diversion program for teen offenders is very effective, but that local law enforcement isn’t taking full advantage of the program that allows youths caught committing minor crimes to avoid arrest and criminal punishment.

The Interfaith Coalition for Action, Reconciliation and Empowerment, or ICARE, held a summit Saturday morning at the Arlington Congregational Church about restorative justice for youthful offenders.

Restorative justice emphasizes repairing the harm caused by criminal behavior and embraces alternatives to arrests and incarceration.

The Rev. Tan Moss said “tough on crime” policies that focus solely on punishment are hurting youthful offenders accused of petty crimes, branding them as criminals and failing to address the underlying social problems.

Lawrence Hills, who manages Jacksonville’s teen court, said the diversion program focuses on educating teens about how their crimes affect victims and the entire community. He said it also allows participants to learn about job opportunities and to receive counseling that can help keep them out of trouble.

Hills spoke alongside a recent graduate of the teen court — ICARE asked for the teen to remain anonymous — who entered the program after he was caught stealing a pair of headphones from Wal-Mart.

He said the court required him to perform community service, undergo drug testing and take field trips to introduce him to work opportunities. He said those trips helped him decide to pursue a job as a merchant seaman, and he’s applying to enter an educational program this spring.

Because of the diversion program, the teen will not have a criminal or an arrest record. If he had that record, Hills said he wouldn’t have been eligible for the merchant seaman educational program.

Since the court began in 2012, 108 youthful offenders have entered the program. Hills said 87 percent of the participants have successfully completed it.

“That’s remarkable considering their turbulent family situations,” Hills said.

Despite the program’s success, local law enforcement needs to issue more civil citations, which is an alternative to being arrested and facing criminal prosecution, to eligible youthful offenders, said state Sen. Audrey Gibson.

According to statistics from the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, 26 percent of eligible youths in the 4th Judicial District — which includes Jacksonville — were served with civil citations between March 2013 and February 2014, compared with 86 percent in Miami-Dade County.

Gibson said she’s working to pass a law that would encourage law enforcement agencies to issue civil citations to nonviolent first time offenders, which keeps their records clear and links them to diversion programs.

The proposal would give police officers discretion to issue verbal warnings instead of a civil citation and to issue civil citations to second-time offenders. It would also require police to provide a written report each time they arrest an eligible offender instead of a civil citation to explain why they made their decision.

Gibson encouraged attendees to write lawmakers to support the bill. She urged the community to ask the candidates for sheriff to explain their stance on civil citations.

“We don’t need to find out later on that they don’t support the civil citation process,” Gibson said. “We want to know ahead of time, because the person who doesn’t support it doesn’t need to be elected.”