Adults should have the same opportunities as kids when it comes to criminal justice. That’s according to the Rev. Melissa Stump, who spoke Tuesday night at the 21st annual rally of PEACE, a coalition of Polk churches who unite around social action.

PEACE, which stands for Polk Ecumenical Action Council for Empowerment, updated its members (see a list of 21 member congregations) on its affordable housing efforts. The centerpiece was criminal-justice equity. The meeting was held outside First Presbyterian Church in Lakeland and streamed online.

“It gets a little messy when we start talking about adults,” said Stump, who is associate pastor at First United Methodist Church in Lakeland and serves on the PEACE Criminal Justice Committee. “Gut reactions come to the surface, like, ‘People need to be held accountable.’ ”

PEACE launched its criminal justice initiatives in 2020, with a focus on adults arrested for minor, non-violent offenses, she said in an interview earlier that day.

For years, PEACE worked with local entities to offer alternatives to children who were arrested for first-time, minor offenses. Diversion efforts succeeded in warding off a permanent arrest record for young people, she said.

PEACE’s youth-arrest diversion program that has been “wildly successful,” said PEACE Housing Committee Co-Chair Christine Goding. “(There’s an) 80% diversion rate for juvenile, first-time, minor offenses,” Goding said. “Polk County is now a model for the state.”

Several speakers took turns presenting. When it was Stump’s turn, she shed light on the harms incurred by minor crimes, which sets off a chain reaction for those caught in the system.    

“Imagine if you get a fine and you can’t afford to pay it,” Stump told the audience. “If you don’t pay it, your driver’s license gets suspended. You have to go to work. So you keep driving. And you get pulled over and arrested. So what happens next?”

In the interview, Stump said PEACE hears from people frequently who have struggled through the criminal justice system. “These aren’t just issues,” she said. “They are people.”

The PEACE Rally updated on the progress of affording housing goals set in 2018 between PEACE and leaders in the cities of Lakeland and Winter Haven. So far, the efforts in Lakeland have garnered 82 units, Goding said.

That number differs from the 456 units that the city officials say have been completed are in progress since 2018. Goding says the reason for the difference is that PEACE applies a more stringent income standard.

Another speaker was the Rev. Ronnie Clark of Hurst Chapel AME in Winter Haven. He is the co-president of PEACE and also the co-chair of Criminal Justice.

His presentation centered on equality in justice, especially in the face of conflict.

“We are united in demanding justice for all,” Clark said, to applause. “Our public officials can’t make promises to one group and not to another. When PEACE shows up, justice reigns.”    

PEACE is comprised of 21 churches, which identify community problems and research ways to effect change. It involves local government for solutions.

To stay social distanced this year, folks showed up to the parking lot at First Presbyterian Church in Lakeland or attended a Zoom call. Some watched it live on Facebook.  PEACE’s next drive-in and live-streamed event is Nehemiah Action on March 16 at Silver Moon Drive-in Theatre, where PEACE addresses elected leaders.

Melissa Stump at the 2021 PEACE Rally

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