March 29, 2014. The Lakeland Ledger.
Preventing childhood mistakes and misdemeanor crimes from crippling children’s adult lives is the driving force this year of the Polk Ecumenical Action Council for Empowerment’s annual Nehemiah Action.
At the public event, PEACE members will seek commitments for achieving that goal from Polk County’s superintendent of schools, sheriff, state attorney and chief judge.
The nineteen churches participating in PEACE are expected to have delegations at the event, which is from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Monday at St. Joseph’s Academy in Lakeland. Others interested in the issue also are invited.
“I would love to see 2,000,” said the Rev. Clifton Dollison, co-president of PEACE and pastor of the First Missionary Baptist Church in Winter Haven.
“Our strength is in our numbers. Our power is in our numbers.”
PEACE wants a prevention web, as Highlands County and some other Florida counties have, to prevent youths arrested for minor offenses from having permanent arrest records, he said.
“It’s not like you’re an arch criminal because you threw a pencil at somebody,” said Dollison, who also is a chaplain with the Winter Haven Police Department.
“We’re a hypersensitive society today, much less tolerant than we were before.”
An arrest record limits their ability in later life to enter the military and to become teachers or nurses, said the Rev. Shirley Williams-Hayes, a PEACE co-president,
“Our children are our future,” said Williams-Hayes, pastor of St. James AME Church in Bartow.
“If they don’t have a future, we don’t have a future.”
PEACE is a grassroots, church-based coalition that identifies Polk County problems and works for local solutions to them.
One of its ongoing efforts has been to increase access to health care in Polk, leading it to lobby county officials successfully for more primary care clinics and programs.
Its members worked for passage of the half-cent local sales tax earmarked for indigent health care.
PEACE has been researching issues surrounding youth arrests for at least two years.
Nearly 1,000 youths were arrested last school year for first-time minor offenses, PEACE said, and 214 of them were younger than 12.
Of 797 arrests that occurred at schools, 587 were for misdemeanors, Dollison said.
Juvenile records aren’t as inaccessible as some people think, the pastors said, and parents often lack the knowledge or money to get them expunged or sealed.
One of their favored solutions is more use of diversion programs, such as Teen Court, Dollison said, and he added that Polk Sheriff Grady Judd has worked with PEACE on the issue.
Support from the other agencies is needed for the effort to be successful, he and Williams-Hayes said.
“We want to ask for the cooperative spirit we have been able to maintain with the Sheriff’s Office.” Dollison said.
In the same spirit, Williams-Hayes said, she has been educating her congregation on “the need for parents to be aware and teach their children, provide guidance and direction.”