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PACT, BOLD Justice 'cite' need for reform

Grassroots activists call for reducing minor offenses to civil citations at spring rallies

MIAMI | Terry Morris was denied a job because he broke up a fight – nearly three decades ago.

As the St. Petersburg resident tells it, he was arrested at the age of 22 after police arrived at the scene. He was later released after others confirmed that he was trying to stop a fight, not start it. Yet when he applied for another job in his 60s, he was turned down.

“I couldn't get the job because I had an arrest record from that minor incident 30 years ago,” Morris said. “I think it’s crazy that you can get branded for life for these minor offenses.”

Affiliates of Direct Action & Research Training Center, an umbrella organization for grassroots activist groups, have been sharing similar stories at rallies all around Florida this spring. They have been pushing law enforcement officials for years to use civil citations in lieu of arrests for minor, non-violent offenses.

PACT (People Acting for Community Together), the affiliate in Miami-Dade, held its annual rally March 15, 2021, both online and off. More than 130 community leaders – including members of Christian, Jewish and Muslim congregations – met with public officials at a drive-in theater in North Miami. Another 1,100 joined online.

The event, called a Nehemiah Action Assembly, was one of 11 rallies scheduled across Florida this spring, including one held in Broward by BOLD Justice (Broward Organized Leaders Doing Justice). Civil citations have been a continuing emphasis for DART and its allies for several years.

In 2018, the Florida legislature passed a bill encouraging communities to create adult civil citation programs. But most state attorneys have ignored the bill, and where programs do exist, activists say, they're limited. But things may be changing.

At the Miami rally, PACT leaders said they had received an e-mail from State Attorney Katherine Fernandez-Rundle promising to support civil citations for several offenses, including petty theft under $300 and driving with a suspended license. PACT said it would continue to work on the issue.

The Miami-Dade Police Department, too, favors reducing some offenses to civil citations, assistant director Stephanie Daniels told PACT at the March 15 gathering. Those would include vandalism under $300, petty theft under $300 and drinking in public. The department declined, though, to include driving on a suspended license or with an expired tag.

Civil citations were also a big topic at the rally of BOLD Justice in Fort Lauderdale. That meeting, also on March 15, turned The Sanctuary Church into a drive-in, with drivers parking on its spacious front lawn and tuning in via radios as they watched speakers on a projection screen. Other participants watched via Zoom, for a combined audience of 1,779.

Pastor Noel Rose, one of two co-presidents of BOLD Justice (the other is the Rev. Kennedy McGowan), noted that young people at his church, Eliatha Seventh-day Adventist, have marched for criminal justice reform.

“I support their passion for reform; now it’s time for clear solutions,” Rose said.  “Giving civil citations for first-time misdemeanor offenses is an important step that state attorneys and sheriffs must take to rebuild trust between law enforcement and our communities.”

The PACT rally dealt with several other issues as well. One was a Community ID program. It would aim at making it easier to obtain COVID vaccines, confirm local identity as a parent with school officials, or to even to get library cards and fill prescriptions.

County Commissioner Eileen Higgins promised to bring the Community ID issue to the Board of County Commissioners within 90 days.

The PACT rally also brought up the growing housing shortage in Miami, with rental rates soaring during the pandemic. City Commissioner Ken Russell said he would push his colleagues to move forward on the city’s plan to build or preserve 32,000 units by 2030.

Nearly a dozen Miami-Dade County Catholic churches are members of PACT. Father Juan Sosa, pastor of St. Joseph Church on Miami Beach, serves as vice-president of membership. Representatives of St. Philip Neri and St. Monica in Miami Gardens, as well as Corpus Christi in Miami, also serve in leadership roles.

Nine Broward parishes participate in BOLD Justice. A representative of Little Flower Church in Hollywood serves as the organization’s vice president.

Both PACT and BOLD Justice have received grants from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.

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