By Ryan Callihan, Bradenton Herald

Local religious leaders renewed their push for criminal justice reform, but Manatee County Sheriff Rick Wells said he doesn’t believe the policy changes will have the impact they’re expecting. A group of pastors with the Stronger Together Reaching Equality Across Manatee (STREAM) group visited the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office headquarters Wednesday afternoon to deliver nearly 600 signatures in support of a new approach to first-time offenders. They said they’re praying for a new approach to criminal justice to avoid the ripple effect that an arrest can create.

“We want to make sure they’re not branded for life with an arrest record because that just creates a spiral of criminalization of poverty,” said Glen Gracyzk, director of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Palmetto. STREAM, which is made up of more than a dozen local church congregations, previously called on Wells to implement the pre-trial arrest diversion program. The program, which involves a fee and community service, would allow people to avoid an arrest for certain misdemeanor crimes. The Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office launched its pre-trial arrest diversion program in July. In the first two months, 70 people took advantage of it.

In October, Wells said he was still in the process of training his deputies, but STREAM said Wells has not provided any updates and has declined to meet with organizers. “We just want to have a meeting to see what his intentions are. He should at least sit with us and have that conversation,” said Ossie Reid, a team leader with STREAM and a member of Harvest Methodist United Church in Lakewood Ranch. “It doesn’t have to be a long conversation, but we want to hear the words from his mouth directly.” Representatives from STREAM say they’re most interested in preventing an arrest record for “minor driving offenses,” such as driving without a license or an expired tag. SHERIFF’S STATEMENT Wells was unavailable to meet with STREAM representatives when they visited his office. In a statement provided to the Bradenton Herald on Wednesday afternoon, Wells said he does not believe the changes would benefit Bradenton-area residents.

“Contrary to what’s being stated, a first-time offender who has no knowledge that their driver’s license has been suspended receives an infraction citation and not a misdemeanor charge,” Wells said. “The majority of the expired tags my deputies come across result in a summons and not an arrest. We also find people who typically drive with a suspended license or an expired tag often don’t have car insurance and are recklessly putting other motorists at risk.” Wells also suggested that the Florida Legislature would be the proper avenue for changes that reduce the punishment associated with minor traffic infractions. WORKING TO ‘BUILD UNITY’ After their visit to the sheriff’s office, STREAM leaders said they were disappointed that Wells did not make time to meet with them. “We are here willing to work with the sheriff to build unity in our community,” Reid said.

“One of the reasons why we feel strongly about this is because of the damage it does to families and to people who are looking for jobs, who are looking for being able to be parts of communities, even going and chaperoning for their kid’s school,” added Kim Uchimara, senior pastor at Emmanuel United Methodist Church in Bradenton. STREAM organizers say they will continue calling on the sheriff to adopt the program. On Thursday, March 9, the group plans to hold a candlelight prayer vigil outside the sheriff’s office, 600 U.S. 301 Blvd. W., Bradenton, to keep pushing for a meeting with Wells. “We don’t want to speculate on what the sheriff is thinking. We want to hear what the sheriff is thinking, and it has to be from his mouth,” Reid said.

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