April 12, 2015. The Sarasota Herald-Tribune.
SARASOTA – Last year, after satisfying the preliminary qualifications with an Army recruiter, 17-year-old Deonte James was asked if he’d ever been in trouble with the law. Rather than fudge, he volunteered he’d been caught in middle school with marijuana in his backpack.
“And they said ‘That’s it, you can’t join the Army,’ ” recalls his mother, Natalie James. “I thought, seriously, that’s it? What you did as a 12-, 13-year-old kid can hold you back from the Army? He did all his community service, we paid all the fees, and the judge said it was going to be expunged from his record.”
That’s why Natalie James will be lending her voice to an anticipated crowd of hundreds of like-minded people in a sharply focused faith-based gathering this evening. “I have to do my part to help other kids. This law isn’t fair,” said James, who belongs to an ecumenical movement called Sarasota United for Responsibility and Equity.
Set for 6:30 to 8 p.m. at First Church on 104 S. Pineapple Ave. in Sarasota, SURE’s “Nehemiah Action” is designed to grab the attention of public officials with sheer numbers. Members of some 17 local and racially diverse congregations are expected to attend.
“We’re trying to get commitments from the people who are supposed to represent us,” says Rev. Keturah Pittman of Greater Hurst Chapel AME Church. “The obstacle was finding a facility that can accommodate more than a thousand people, and we are very grateful to First Church for offering to help.”
Named for the Old Testament governor who alleviated myriad burdens on the governed after confronting the grievances of their “great assembly,” SURE’s annual Nehemiah Action is pressing for action on two fronts: homelessness, and youthful offender criminal records.
“When we discussed with our congregations what our priorities should be, these two issues were head and shoulders above the rest,” says Pittman.
Mary Gaulke, an activist with SURE’s homelessness committee, says at least one item should be an easy fix.
“All we want is for county and city officials to just talk to each other — that’s it,” she said. “We’ve spent a lot of money on coming up with a plan, but the city and the county haven’t talked to each other about it in nearly a year. We’d like them to sit down and discuss this issue twice before November 1.”
Sarasota City Manager Tom Barwin, who recently produced an eight-point shelter plan to jump-start the impasse, has indicated he would attend the meeting. But SURE leaders say they’re disappointed in the lack of attendance from elected officials on both sides, and plan to read officials their letters aloud Monday night.
“I think it’s something you have to personally experience before you get it,” said Rev. Robert Vincent Smith III, senior pastor at Trinity Christian Fellowship Center. Before moving away from Trinity’s previous quarters in downtown Sarasota, Smith said members would literally have to clear a path of itinerants on the steps to reach the church.
“People were afraid to attend services at night,” he said.
SURE’s other agenda item — adopting the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice’s Civil Citation program — is already working in 59 of Florida’s 67 counties. But not in Sarasota County.
Under the civil citation system, law enforcement officers collaring juveniles for first-time misdemeanors can recommend a DJJ program involving confession, apology, community service, restitution, probation and drug testing. Successful completion of a civil citation will erase all records of the offense, which might otherwise follow a minor through adulthood.
SURE leaders make their case by comparing DJJ statistics from Florida’s most populous county with Sarasota. From July 2013 to June 2014, of the 1,609 young offenders eligible for civil citations in Dade County, only 141 wound up with arrests on their record. During the same period in Sarasota County, all 211 minors detained wound up with arrest records.
“Dade County has four times our population but fewer arrests,” Pittman said. “This isn’t right.”
Among the invitees likely to attend is Venice Police Department Chief Tom McNulty. “I am not in a position to state that we are ready to enact such a program,” McNulty stated in an email that voiced his continued support for the long-running peer-sentencing Teen Court program. But he added, “I support further research and a possible collaborative effort between both groups.”
SURE leaders say they envision civil citations and Teen Court as companion programs.
Founded in 1997, SURE has an impressive track record for affecting local policy. Its successes include working with Sarasota County Area Transit to extend bus routes and hours for low-income workers commuting to jobs in Longboat Key, helping to install drug-and-alcohol programs in jail to reduce recidivism, and assisting the county school system with a restorative justice program to cut down on student suspensions.
Said Rev. Wes Bixby from the First Congregational United Church of Christ, “We encourage any person of faith who wants to get involved to please come out and support us on Monday night.
“We’re not going away. If we don’t achieve our goals this time around, we’ll be back next year. And the year after that, if we have to.”