By Eric Glasser, WTSP

Representatives from several area churches marched through Ybor City to the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office on Thursday.

They’re again asking Sheriff Chad Chronister to expand the county’s pre-arrest diversion program so that it would include misdemeanor criminal traffic offenses.

The Hillsborough Organization for Progress and Equality – or HOPE – also delivered hundreds of postcards from local clergy, asking the sheriff to take the lead in expanding the program also known as APAD.

“This is a vicious cycle,” Pastor Bernice Powell Jackson of First United Church of Tampa.

Compelled by their faith, Powell Jackson and other local religious groups are demanding an end to what they call the criminalization of poverty.

“Every year that’s thousands more that are branded for life,” Pastor Michael Price with Victory AME Church said. “How much more can we wait?”

Group members say the criminal justice system unfairly punishes thousands of poor people each year who can’t afford to pay traffic fines.

The process sometimes leads to a downward spiral as unpaid citations can become suspended licenses and, possibly, an arrest record.

“Charges from these offenses lead to people losing their jobs, their housing, their community connections, and going further into debt,” Powell Jackson explained.

“We need Sheriff Chronister on board,” Pastor Chris Kravitz of Waters Avenue Church. “Because other decision-makers in the criminal justice system have pointed to him and are looking to him for leadership.”

Despite the group’s claim, Sheriff Chronister has refused to meet with them, a statement from the sheriff’s office says he has done so several times.

The sheriff’s office says it was disappointed to end its relationship with members of HOPE this past February after what it called years of trying to foster a professional and productive partnership.

“We are constantly working alongside our criminal justice partners to find alternatives to arrests when offenses are deemed minor,” a statement from Chronister read. “I am committed to the continuous review of programs such as Adult Pre-Arrest Diversion and regularly consider potential additional offenses and how such inclusion will benefit our citizens and the safety of our community.”

However, HCSO says prosecutions are up to the state attorney’s office. And changes in the law would have to come from the state legislature.

“You know, the state attorney says it’s the sheriff. The sheriff says it’s the state attorney,” Powell Jackson said. “The Department of Motor Vehicles says it’s up to the local officials.”

In addition to requesting an expansion of APAD, HOPE says the postcards they delivered included an invitation to Sheriff Chronister to address the group’s Nehemiah Action meeting in Tampa on April 16. The gathering, they say, will include more than a thousand community members.

View the original story here.