March 23, 2015. The Sun Sentinel.
Nearly 3,000 people Monday night joined religious leaders in calling for Palm Beach County police officers and sheriff’s deputies to stop arresting children and jailing immigrants for minor criminal offenses.
People Engaged in Active Community Efforts, known as PEACE, is a coalition of more than two dozen Palm Beach County religious groups.
The group held its annual assembly Monday at the Palm Beach County Convention Center, attracting families, choirs, retirees and churchgoers from across the county.
Top priorities for the group this year are reducing the arrests of children for misdemeanors and convincing law enforcement agencies not to automatically jail immigrants without U.S. citizenship caught driving without a driver’s license.
Issuing more civil citations to juvenile offenders and accepting alternative forms of identification from immigrants are among the “reasonable and righteous” solutions that the group proposes, the Rev. Robert Rease told the crowd Monday night.
“Rise up and build a better Palm Beach County,” Rease, of St. John Missionary Baptist Church, told the crowd. “That’s why we are here tonight.”
The coalition is calling for the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office and local police to stop the “unnecessary arrests” of children for low-level crimes.
The group argues that misdemeanor offenses such as graffiti, shoplifting and playground fights should trigger punishments, but not criminal records for juvenile offenders.
So instead of arresting those under 18 years old for minor offenses, the religious leaders propose that local law enforcement issue civil citations, similar to traffic tickets.
That could put children into first-time offender programs that can require restitution while avoiding creating a criminal record.
The group also wants the courts and law enforcement agencies to allow second-time offenders to participate in those programs again, to offer a second chance for children to avoid getting a criminal record.
Even juvenile criminal records can end up having life-long consequences, according to the religious group. Misdemeanors can keep teenagers from getting college scholarships and having a juvenile criminal record can make it harder to get into the military.
“Our children should be forgiven for mistakes that they have made,” said the Rev. Darial Smith of St. John First Baptist Church. “We do not believe that they should be punished for a lifetime.”
In addition to cutting down on juvenile arrests, the religious coalition wants Sheriff Ric Bradshaw to implement the group’s proposal from last year to stop arresting immigrants living here without U.S. citizenship for driving without a license.
The sheriff could cut down on those arrests by accepting alternative forms of identification when a driver is caught driving without a license and issue a citation instead of taking the driver to jail, according to the coalition.
One alternative form of identification available is a consular identification card, which includes a local address.
Bradshaw last year agreed to consider accepting consular identification cards, but hasn’t implemented the policy yet and immigrant drivers without licenses are still getting arrested.
The risk of going to jail just for driving without a license creates fear and distrust and makes it less likely that immigrant communities feel safe cooperating with law enforcement, according to the religious coalition. Also, putting more people in jail adds to costs for taxpayers.
“We want Sheriff Bradshaw to follow through on his commitment,” the Rev. Gerald Kisner of Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church said Monday night.
Bradshaw didn’t attend Monday’s meeting, despite a public push from the group to join them. He has said that a prior commitment would keep him from attending. He also didn’t attend last year’s event.
Bradshaw has said that he is waiting for information from consular general offices before considering implementing an alternative identification policy.
Also, Bradshaw has said that the group’s proposal to reduce juvenile arrests is a countywide issue and that the Sheriff’s Office would consider it as along as other law enforcement agencies were part of the discussion.
State Attorney Dave Aronberg and Palm Beach County Public Defender Carey Haughwout attended the Monday meeting and both voiced support for pursuing more alternatives to juvenile arrests.
Police chiefs from West Palm Beach, Delray Beach, Boynton Beach, Riviera Beach and the School District also attended and agreed to consider pursuing more juvenile offender programs instead of arrests for minor crimes.
The police chiefs from West Palm Beach and Riviera Beach agreed to consider accepting alternative forms of identification from immigrants caught driving without a license. The police chiefs from Delray Beach and Boynton Beach said they could not commit to that.
People Engaged in Active Community Efforts champions issues intended to help the poor, disadvantaged and others in need. In the past, the group pushed to stop wage theft and called for county government contractors to do more hiring from economically struggling Glades communities.