Faith-based effort seeks leniency for the young

April 12, 2015. The Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

The Revs. Wes Bixby, Keturah Pittman and Robert Vincent Smith III will lobby for social justice tonight with the faith- based Sarasota United for Responsibility and Equity.

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.”

Sarasota churches raise awareness of youth arrests

January 16, 2015. January 16, 2015.

Sarasota–As many as 15 Sarasota church congregations join together to raise awareness of youth arrests, and plan to include messages in their weekend sermons.

SURE, Sarasota United for Responsibility and Equity and the NAACP of Sarasota have joined forces to shed light on what they say is an alarming number of youth receiving arrest records for first time, non-serious misdemeanors in Florida, and specifically Sarasota.

Rev. Keturah Pittman, with Greater Hurst Chapel, and a SURE member, says she’s heard stories of a kids a young as 12 who were arrested for minor misdemeanors and lost out on opportunities to go into the military or take the bar exam, because the records have followed them into adulthood.

All of SURE’s 15 church congregations have agreed to preach the message of youth justice at this Sunday’s church services, in conjunction with Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday celebrations on Monday.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement has information on juvenile diversion programs on its website at There is a $75 fee application fee and a list of criteria to be met in order to have a youthful arrest expunged.

Restorative discipline piloted in Sarasota, expansion planned

Sarasota, FL – Research conducted by SURE in 2009 showed that Sarasota County uses out-of-school suspension at a far higher rate than many similar counties. Also, out-of-school suspension has proven to be ineffective in curbing undesirable conduct while pushing children out of school. Several elementary and middle schools lacked an alternate disciplinary program. As an alternative, school districts nationwide have begun adopting an approach known as restorative discipline, which focuses on peer accountability and raising awareness of the consequences of inappropriate actions. Schools adopting restorative discipline practices have had success in reducing both the number of out of school suspensions and the number of occurrences of troublesome conduct dramatically. In 2010, SURE leaders sought and received a commitment from the Superintendent of Sarasota County Schools to implement restorative discipline programs in two county elementary schools and one middle school, each of which had a significantly higher than average out-of-school suspension rate. SURE leaders expect results to lead to expansion of restorative discipline to other schools.

Substance abuse treatment established in Sarasota jails

Sarasota, FL – At its 2009 Nehemiah Action, SURE received a commitment from the Sarasota County Sheriff to develop and implement an in-jail drug and alcohol rehabilitation program in order to lower recidivism rates (i.e., rate of repeat arrests) for addicted offenders, which had been reported at 75% within one year of release. In the summer of 2009, the program was introduced with 48 male and 32 female inmates participating. The results of this program have been extremely promising. As of June 2010, men completing the program have had a 13% recidivism rate, while women have a recidivism rate of 9%.

SURE expands CRA for housing

Sarasota, FL – At SURE’s Nehemiah Action in April 2006, commitments were secured to protect and expand downtown and Newtown’s stock of affordable housing through expansion of the Community Redevelopment Area serviced by Tax Increment Financing and the reduction or deferral of impact fees when constructing new affordable housing. On April 10, 2008, SURE held its Nehemiah Action with over 500 people in attendance to press public officials for a renewed commitment to “preserve and expand” the stock of affordable housing. A recent breakthrough saw the earmarking of nearly $14 million for the redevelopment of the county’s largest public housing project to address facilities long neglected by local government and lagging far behind code.