Religious rally calls for reducing arrests of children, immigrants

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.

Annual peace gathering draws crowd of 3,000 to West Palm Beach

March 23, 2015. The Palm Beach Post.

Annual peace gathering draws crowd of 3,000 to West Palm Beach
Brianna Soukup

WEST PALM BEACH — Two local police chiefs said Monday night they would be open to discussions with local community leaders about implementing policies that would allow undocumented immigrants without a driver’s licence to provide an alternative means of identification.

The issue of undocumented immigrants facing arrest for driving without a license and the arrests of juvenile offenders were the main topics as the grass-roots organization People Engaged in Active Community Efforts — or PEACE — held its annual assembly at the Palm Beach County Convention Center.

Annual peace gathering draws crowd of 3,000 photo

About 3,000 people attended the event along with various law-enforcement officials. Father Nestor Rodriguez told those attending that nearly 500 undocumented individuals in Palm Beach County were taken to jail in 2014 for driving without a license.

“We believe this a serious injustice,” said Rodriguez, who is the pastor at Saint Ann Parish in downtown West Palm Beach. “We want to stop families from experience the injustice of arrests and the pain that follows.”

The group posed questions to West Palm Beach Police Chief Bryn Kummerlen, Riviera Beach Chief Clarence Williams, Delray Beach Chief Jeff Goldman and Boynton Beach Chief Jeffrey Katz, asking each to commit to having their officers accept consular identifications in place of a driver’s license.

Annual peace gathering draws crowd of 3,000 to West Palm Beach photo

Kummerlen and Williams said they would agree to a policy provided that the identifications could prove a driver is a resident of the county. Kummerlen noted that the driver would still be subject to arrest, but could receive a notice to appear in court rather than be taken to jail.

Goldman and Katz declined to commit to the policy, saying they would need to receive more information. Sheriff Ric Bradshaw did not attend the gathering, but said in a videotaped message that his deputies would consider accepting the consular identifications on the condition that they prove that a driver lives in the county.

The chiefs were joined by State Attorney Dave Aronberg and School District Police Chief Larry Leon in facing questions about expending juvenile offender programs to those with more than one misdemeanor arrest.

“Because they’ve made some mistakes, there are children being arrested and paying the price for the rest of their lives,” said Darial Smith, the youth minister at St. John First Baptist Church in Belle Glade.

Aronberg and the police chiefs were asked to commit to policies referring all eligible youth to the the county’s Juvenile First Offender Program, and work with community leaders to expand the eligibility and diversion programs within state laws.

All agreed that they would.

Palm Beach County to help companies pay for new employees

January 13, 2015. The Sun Sentinel.

More jobs could come from Palm Beach County‘s new taxpayer-funded incentives for businesses to hire and train local workers.

One plan encourages companies hired for county construction projects to voluntarily train a new generation of ironworkers, carpenters and other trade workers through apprenticeship programs.

The other plan calls for county contractors to hire more workers from economically struggling western communities, including Belle Glade, South Bay and Pahokee, which have long been plagued by high unemployment.

In both cases, the county would use taxpayer dollars to pay the contractors 20 to 30 percent of the salaries of those apprentices and of the new employees hired from the Glades communities.

“I think it provides a real incentive, [but] it depends on contractor participation,” County Administrator Robert Weisman said.

The County Commission Tuesday approved the new job creation incentive programs, which officials said would take effect immediately. How much the incentives end up costing taxpayers depends on how many contractors participate.

County officials say that the potential public cost is worth the opportunity to create more jobs.

“We all started somewhere,” County Mayor Shelley Vana said. “Everyone deserves to have a good job; to have a home.”

For the apprentice incentive program, the county would pay 20 percent of the salaries for trainees, up to $100,000 per county construction project. That cap goes up to $200,000 on larger county construction projects.

The county opted for creating the incentive program instead of trying to require construction companies on county jobs to train new workers.

Union leaders and building industry representatives alike supported the apprenticeship program.

“It will benefit many people that live here,” said Sean Mitchell, of Ironworkers Local Union 402. “You have a better trained workforce, a safer workforce.”

The county’s apprentice program comes as Florida faces having a shortage of skilled trade workers, said Carol Bowen, vice president of Associated Builders and Contractors Florida. The voluntary apprentice program allows people to “learn on the job” without creating another regulatory hurdle for private companies, according to Bowen.

For the Glades residents hiring incentive plan, the county would pay 30 percent of the wages for new employees from the targeted towns who are hired by county contractors. The county would cap the amount a contractor could receive in salary compensation at $100,000 per project.

The county is singling out the three communities alongside Lake Okeechobee for the extra help because unemployment there is about 32 percent, compared to 5.5 percent eastern Palm Beach County, according to the Business Development Board of Palm Beach County.

Crumbling roads, dilapidated housing and worn out water and sewer lines make it harder to attract new businesses to the three Glades communities, which also suffer from shrinking numbers of agricultural jobs.

“There is no other area in Palm Beach County that can compare to the circumstances in the Glades,” said County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay, whose district includes the western communities.

The county’s creation of a Glades residents hiring incentive came in response to a coalition of two dozen local religious congregations that in March called for the county to do more to address unemployment in the western communities.

People Engaged in Active Community Efforts, known as PEACE, has raised concerns that Glades residents too often miss out on job opportunities from county projects that build roads, new buildings and other infrastructure improvements.

The new county Glades hiring incentive coupled with improved job training opportunities through the county and local schools can help get western communities “moving in the right direction,” said People Engaged representative the Rev. Robert Rease, of St. John First Missionary Baptist Church in Belle Glade.

The Glades hiring incentive program “is just a start” and more must be done to improve economic opportunities, Commissioner Priscilla Taylor said.

“It is going to be incumbent on us to not let it drop,” Taylor said. “Make sure that it is something that is working.”

Palm Beach County considers more help for workers to recover pay

January 12, 2015. The Sun Sentinel.

Low-income workers struggling to collect overdue pay could get more help this year from Palm Beach County.

A coalition of religious congregations several years ago persuaded Palm Beach County officials to start paying more attention to “wage theft,” which leaves workers who can least afford it without the pay they rely on for rent, food and other basic needs.

In response, the county has partnered with the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County on a wage-recovery program aimed at helping people collect disputed pay.

County commissioners Tuesday will be asked to renew its deal with the Legal Aid Society and pay $125,000 for another year of the wage-recovery program.

That’s about $21,000 more than last year, which the Legal Aid Society says will be used to bring in more legal help to try to speed up reimbursements.

“Most of the cases get settled through negotiation, [but] this will allow a little more of litigation,” said Robert Bertisch, Legal Aide Society executive director.

Landscaping workers, janitors, waiters, telemarketers and others working in service industries are among those served by the wage-recovery program, which helps people who can’t afford to hire an attorney to fight for overdue or disputed pay.

During 2014, the Legal Aid Society recovered $102,935 for 85 people through the program, Bertisch said. That translated to recovering money for about 61 percent of the cases closed cases in 2014, according to the Legal Aid Society.

The Legal Aid Society has one attorney working full-time on wage-recovery efforts, with help from volunteer attorneys. The $21,000 increase would pay for additional part-time legal work, Bertisch said.

The Legal Aid Society estimates that bringing in more legal help could reduce processing time from 80 days to 60 days, in the hopes of getting workers reimbursed faster.

The county’s arrangement with the Legal Aid Society was a compromise step taken after the County Commission rejected a nearly three-year push by religious advocates to enact a local wage-theft law and collection program.

The group of 28 local religious congregations — called People Engaged in Active Community Efforts, or PEACE — advocated creating an alternative to the slow-moving court system that would have used county employees to help recover overdue pay.

Business groups opposed creating a local wage-theft law, arguing that it would create too much regulation for local employers.

By teaming with the Legal Aid Society, the county offers free legal help that uses existing state and federal law to help recover overdue pay.

The arrangement with the Legal Aid Society is the “most appropriate way” for the county to handle wage recovery, according to Associated Builders and Contractors Florida Vice President Carol Bowen.

“We were never opposed to people who are victims of wage theft being able to secure the services they need in order to be paid that which they are owed,” Bowen wrote in a Dec. 16 letter to the county.