By Ken Suarez, FOX 13 Tampa Bay

Dozens of members of the Polk Ecumenical Action Council for Empowerment (PEACE) held a vigil in Fort Blount Park in Bartow on Tuesday.

They chanted, held signs and prayed. They said too many first-time offenders are arrested for committing minor crimes. Instead, they want a lot more people to be put into a diversion program.

“We want to have accountability, but we don’t want people to have the arrest record for a first time minor misdemeanor to follow that person the rest of their days,” said Pastor Ron Clark of the Hurst Chapel AME Church in Winter Haven.

The pastor said the result can be devastating if someone is arrested, even for a minor infraction of the law. The said a criminal record makes it more difficult for the person to get a job or find housing.

In one recent year, fewer than 80 people were diverted in Polk County. Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said that is more than enough.

“Here is a thought for PEACE,” said Judd. “If you don’t want to be in trouble with the system, don’t commit crimes.”

The officer on the street makes the call to arrest you or send you to a diversion program.

To be eligible for diversion in Polk County, you must have a clean record, and be a first offender accused of a minor crime such as passing a bad check or possession of drug paraphernalia.

PEACE said every year, hundreds more people in Polk County meet that standard but get arrested anyway. If they were diverted, they could avoid jail, the courts and a criminal record.

“This practice of arresting first time minor offenders is hurting our community, our fellow residents, our brothers and our sisters,” said Clark.

Read original story here.