By Melissa Perez-Carrillo, Sarasota Herald-Tribune

Faith leaders from 15 congregations gathered on Thursday night at the Manatee County Sheriff’s office and called for a meeting to discuss the need for a pre-arrest diversion program for the law enforcement agency.

About 50 people attended the vigil, where faith leaders held several prayers and led the singing of hymns in the Sheriff’s Office parking lot. The event was organized by Stronger Together Reaching Equality Across Manatee, a multi-congregational grassroots organization that calls for the change of various policies that create poverty and injustice.

“Let justice roll, like a mighty stream,” the group chanted at the end of the vigil.

The pre-arrest diversion program has been a focus of the group since May 2022. Last week, the group delivered hundreds of letters to Sheriff Rick Wells from community members and asked him to include minor, non-dangerous driving offenses in the implementation of a new adult pre-arrest diversion program.

“We need to stop criminalizing poverty in Manatee County,” Rogers Community Church Pastor Joreatha Capers said. “When someone loses their driver’s license because they can’t afford to pay a fee, arresting them for driving on a suspended license only throws their family into greater poverty.”

Wells said in a written statement that a first-time offender who has no knowledge that their driver’s license has been suspended receives an infraction citation, not a misdemeanor charge, and driving with an expired tag is an infraction unless the tag has been expired for more than six months. He added that the majority of expired tags result in a summons and not an arrest.

“Every day, the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office receives numerous traffic complaints from citizens who observe violations of state traffic laws, and we continue to enforce these laws and make our roads safer,” Wells said.

St. Mary’s Episcopal Church Fr. Glen Graczyk said it’s very likely that something as innocuous as a summons or an infraction is still kept on record and could impact the likelihood of getting a good job or receiving a scholarship. It can also escalate quickly to a misdemeanor if someone is unable to afford to attend a summons or pay a ticket.

“The program we think this community deserves is one that promotes civil citations over arrests for minor, non-violent misdemeanors, including traffic violations,” Graczyk said. “We believe this is the smart way to go.”

Statistics from the Manatee County Clerk of the Court the group has cited showed that of 8,402 total misdemeanor arrests, 3,545 were driver’s license-related offenses.

Carmen Shorey attended the vigil as a member of Pathways Christian Fellowship. She’s been a member of STREAM for a year and has seen the cycle of poverty that’s caused by those who are unable to afford car insurance, fix a taillight or pay ticket fines that can lead to misdemeanors.

“They should try to find out what they could do to help these people to get where they need to go instead of just locking them up or putting something on their name just for that,” Shorey said.

STREAM is hoping to have a meeting with Wells in the upcoming weeks.

See original story here.