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Churches Push For A More ‘JUST’ Pensacola Community

John Aeschbury
Photo courtesy of JUST Pensacola

Juvenile justice has been identified as a primary issue of concern for the new faith-based organization, JUST Pensacola.

The group is now comprised of 24 local congregations that are working for justice in the Pensacola area.

“We are churches of different faith that have come together to address issues within our community,” said Rev. Paul Blackmon, Pastor of First Baptist Church of Ferry Pass and vice president of JUST Pensacola.

“There are some concerns we have and we came together to decide what those concerns were, as individual churches and then we came together as an organization to decide ultimately what area we proceed.”

The organization’s official name is Justice United Seeking Transformation. It formed in November 2018, with 283 people from 18 congregations gathered at First United Methodist Church in Pensacola.  Rev. Dr. Rick Branch heads up the music ministry at the church and serves as secretary for the JUST Pensacola Board.

“I have to give a shout out to Rev. Kammy Young,” Branch declared. “She moved to this area, and had been a part of these kinds of organizations in other areas. So, she was the impetus to get all of us together and to show us what can happen if we all do come together.”

Branch says participating congregations have spent months brainstorming to determine the first issues to put forth for action.

“We started back in the fall and we had house meetings within all the congregations participating,” said Branch, noting about 60 house meetings, involving about 500 people total. “At all the house meetings, we asked the members of our churches who came to those meetings, 'What makes you angry? What concerns you about justice issues in Pensacola?' and got their stories."

The process came down to two issues that were subject to a comprehensive review, with the goal of coming up with a specific, achievable, ask of local government.

“We had two committees who’ve been working now for months and months and months on the research process; one that focused on criminal justice and one that focused on education. And, all of that work leads up to tonight,” explained Pastor Michael Hoffman, from Christ Episcopal Church, as he opened JUST Pensacola’s first Nehemiah Action Assembly, which was held a few weeks ago (Aug. 31) -  via Zoom.

“We now have 531 screens, and there’s a whole lot of married couples and other people out there. So, let’s call that 700 people; 700 people of faith, different faith traditions, different backgrounds, who have come together to seek justice.”

“One of the reasons I am a member of JUST Pensacola is because I am tired of Escambia County consistently rating at or near the top of counties in Florida for arrests of children,” said Branch, a juvenile justice advocate for the past decade. During the recent event, he offered the first testimonial.

“We have more than double the state average for youth arrests in school and youth arrests in general. We are consistently at or near the top of counties in Florida that prosecute children as adults. I am tired that of all the arrests we make each year, almost 60% are black children, even though they make up less than 30% of the population.

Credit John Aeschbury / Photo courtesy of JUST Pensacola
Photo courtesy of JUST Pensacola
These are the officers for JUST Pensacola. Rev. Rick Branch (First United Methodist) - Secretary; Rev. Clifton Riley (Bethel AME) - Co-President; Rev. Michael Hoffman (Christ Episcopal) - Co-President; Rev. Paul Blackmon (1st Baptist Ferry Pass) - Vice President; Rev. Machelle Easley (Escambia Chapel AME) - Treasurer.

Created by the Florida Legislature in 2011, the Civil Citation program offers an alternative to arrest for youth committing non-serious misdemeanors. Escambia launched the program two years later.  In subsequent years, lawmakers raised the limit from one citation to three, and in 2017 eliminated the cap altogether.

Branch shared Juvenile Justice Departmentdata from March 2019 to Feb. 2020 - pre-coronavirus - to show that when it comes to issuing civil citations, Escambia County could do much better.

“During those 12 months prior to the pandemic, 381 Escambia Co. Youth qualified for civil citations, but only 177 were given civil citations,” said Branch in making the point that 204 such youth were not issued one.

That’s a county-wide issuance rate of 46%, 13 percentage points below the state average.

Both Pensacola Police officers and Escambia County deputies issued civil citations at a higher rate in school. However, outside the educational environment, interactions with Escambia deputies, in particular, resulted in just 12% of eligible youth being issued civil citations.

Branch noted: “Civil citations are a way for the youth to stay out of the criminal justice system, to not be booked, hand-cuffed, all those things that happen when you are arrested.” He added they have a much better recidivism rate, much cheaper and more effective. "So, our primary ask was that they increase the amount of civil citations given.”

Specifically, Ginger Bowden Madden, set to become the next State Attorney of the First Judicial Circuit, was asked to increase the monthly usage of civil citations to 80% by July 2021. She says her plan is to use the program as often as is appropriate.

“If they’re a candidate for the program and there is not either a legal reason or some aggravating factor that would make them not appropriate for it, then they’re not going to be able to participate,” Madden began. “But, where they meet the criteria, I’m all for it, whether it’s 80% or 100% of the time.”

Further, Madden affirmed that she would be willing to explore creation of a civil citation program for adults. She stopped short of committing to quarterly meetings for civil citation updates.

“Hey, if we’re doing great and everything’s great, you don’t need to see me. If things are not doing well, you pick up the phone and somebody will be there to schedule a time to sit down and talk about this,” she said.

The candidates for Escambia County Sheriff also participated in the Nehemiah Action Assembly and both, David Alexander, III and Chip Simmons, agreed to work with Madden to increase the use of the Civil Citation program.

Rev. Blackmon, JUST Pensacola vice president and retired investigator with the State Attorney’s Office, is optimistic.

“I’m hopeful that those persons that are coming into office, as they have stated, that they will be receptive to the problem and not just give it lip-service,” said Blackmon, adding that the program has been a success in other areas of the state, such as Miami-Dade and Pinellas counties, which each have civil citation issuance rates of over 90%.

While the group waits for updated juvenile justice and civil citation data, members are simultaneously preparing to launch their next listening and research to action process.

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.