ST. PETERSBURG — Gospel music blared as hundreds of people filed into an unusually large venue – the outfield at Tropicana Field – to confront local leaders about social issues.
The group, Faith and Action for Strength Together (FAST) Pinellas, is a collection of religious groups throughout the county that gathers annually to ask mayors, the sheriff, and other officials to take a stand on social justice issues and helping the disadvantaged.
“All of those here want to pull up ourselves by the bootstraps, but we know that requires bootstraps,” said Elder James Myles of Bethel Community Baptist Church.
A major focal point Monday night was what some call the “school-to-prison pipeline.” Youth advocates say too many minors are arrested for offenses such as fighting or throwing things for which they could be disciplined differently, only to have their early tangles with the law come back to haunt them when they're adults looking for work or financial aid.
“The problem is that these records stick with kids forever,” the Rev. Willie McClendon, a pastor at Shiloh Baptist Church in Largo, said in a press release ahead of the event.
In St. Petersburg alone, estimates on youth arrests in 2013 range from 1,700 to more than 2,500. Statewide, 78,195 youths were arrested in 2012, according to FBI statistics.
In March, FAST proposed that Pinellas authorities adopt a model similar to what Broward County is using to curb youth arrests, which includes dozens of offenses that could be handled through an alternative civil citation program, not the sheriff's department.
At the time, Pinellas schools Superintendent Michael Grego was enthusiastic about the proposal.
So were officials who attended Monday, including Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gaultieri and State Attorney Bernie McCabe. St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman did not attend, but Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin came in his stead, and was asked if the mayor would commit to hiring a police chief who would pursue a policy of not arresting children.
All said “yes” when asked if they would pursue an alternative.
“We stand with you on this issue,” Gaultieri said. “We need to make sure our children don't go from the school house to the jail house.”
The unanimous support invigorated the crowd.
“There's now hope for our young people,” said Ron Shelpy of Blessed Trinity Catholic Church. “Children who make nonserious mistakes don't need to end up with arrest records.”
The event was not without tension.
Earlier, the group made a presentation about jobs for former criminal offenders, and asked Tomalin if the mayor would commit to creating a mandatory local hiring ordinance if construction companies do not take advantage of incentives for hiring disadvantaged residents, including former criminal offenders.
“We want to be absolutely transparent and thorough with our answer, and ensure you that we'll work to find the best solution,” she said.
The coalition took that as a no.
“Tonight we are disappointed,” the Rev. Robert Teagle said.
The coalition also addressed affordable dental care, and asked county commissioners if they would support allocating $5.9 million for indigent dental care. The three commissioners in attendance – Ken Welch, John Morroni and Janet Long – said they would. Commissioner Charlie Justice was unable to attend because of illness.
FAST Pinellas has been lobbying local governments on a range of social issues for about a decade. Officials are asked to either agree with the group or disagree on a given issue, without equivocation.