When Pastor Bruce Havens asked a mega-church packed with more than 1,000 people how many had been in prison or knew someone who has served time on Monday evening, nearly three quarters of the room rose to its feet.

The arena-sized assembly room suddenly came to serve as a visual reminder of the reach of the criminal justice system, and the very real results of strict sentencing laws like mandatory minimums for nonviolent offenses.

Leaders from more than 38 congregations spearheading efforts to institute criminal justice reforms and other community programs asked the city’s sheriff and its state attorney if they would continue to feed young people into that system, or instead issue civil citations.

The religious leaders spared no ire for Mayor Lenny Curry, who did not attend the Interfaith Coalition for Action, Reconciliation and Empowerment, or ICARE, after the group went to the media with complaints over his lack of support for a homeless day care center.

Much of the rest of the night’s discussion centered on Senate Bill 196, introduced by state Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, which would allow first-time juvenile offenders to divert from the criminal system for about a dozen nonviolent, minor offenses.

State Attorney Melissa Nelson said she would not weigh in on policymaking but would have no qualms if the bill passed. Sheriff Mike Williams said he would not support the bill as it was written because it does not include discretion for officers. He said the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office has increased issuance of civil citations from less than 10 percent of eligible cases to more than 80 percent.

“You always give police officers discretion,” Williams said. “Officers want to do the right thing … so we have to follow that path.”

But that wasn’t enough for the moderator, ICARE’s Nancy Ricker. She said discretion was an opportunity for unequal enforcement.

“Black children are twice as likely to be arrested as white children for the same offense,” Ricker countered.

Despite being pressed to support the bill, Williams would not relent. Pastor Tan Moss of ICARE said the Florida Sheriffs Association has been the bill’s toughest opponent shortly after Williams left the stage. A House committee recently peeled back from recommendations made by the Senate panel that initially passed the bill.

Havens delivered an update on the work of the Jacksonville Reentry Center, which provides clothing, transportation, employment, health services and transitional housing to ex-offenders returning to their communities. He praised Williams for increasing the funding for the program by more than 50 percent, from $900,000 to $1.5 million, but said the group is still not even serving half the people it could be reaching.

“Almost 1,600 people returning from prison need it each year,” Havens said. “But because of funding, only 640 people receive some, but not comprehensive, assistance.”

The group’s priorities, following months of study, are as follows:

• Homeless day resource center: The center would offer support for finding housing and jobs to the city’s homeless population. Jacksonville used to have such a center, but it was closed in October 2015.

• Civil citations: This reform in law enforcement priorities would divert juveniles arrested for nonviolent and minor crimes from entering the criminal justice system. Instead, police would issue civil citations, as they do in Miami.

• Restorative justice: This would alter the “zero-tolerance” school discipline priorities to instead focus on mediation with fellow students and staff when they violate codes of conduct. ICARE says 157 schools are now using this program.

• Ex-offender re-entry: The Jacksonville Reentry Center helps residents returning from the criminal justice system to become self-sufficient and avoid reoffending.

• Employee-owned businesses in Northwest Jacksonville: The group wants to open a community-owned grocery story in the city’s “Soul District” by the end of 2018 to alleviate the effective food desert in the city’s Northside.


Ben Conarck: (904) 359-4103