OAKLAND PARK – Eight years ago, Desmond Meade was homeless, recovering from drug addiction, and had even considered suicide. But he entered a treatment center and then a homeless shelter and, eventually, enrolled in an associates paralegal studies program.
Meade graduated at the top of his class and continued to earn high marks while completing his bachelor’s degree in public safety management.
Today, Meade is a fourth-year law student at Florida International University, three classes away from earning his Juris Doctor degree.
But Meade won’t practice law in Florida. He can’t even sit for the bar exam Meade, president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, is among more than 1.5 million Floridians who cannot vote, cannot practice law and cannot sit on a jury due to a felony conviction.
Meade shared his story Sunday with congregants at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Fort Lauderdale in Oakland Park, whose morning service and afternoon Town Hall meeting focused on the federal government’s war on drugs and the mass incarceration of African Americans.
The sessions were based on Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, the church’s 2012-13 “Common Read” emphasized throughout the denomination.
“In order to challenge mass criminalization, we need to look at the issue as the major human rights, civil rights and racial justice issue of our time,” said Audrey Bomse, South Florida representative of the National Lawyer’s Guild.
Summarizing the main points of Alexander’s book, the church’s minister, the Rev. Gail Tapscott, said the war on drugs traps African Americans in a cycle of poverty. Police are more active in predominantly poor, minority communities, where large numbers of people are swept into the criminal justice system. Lacking adequate legal representation, minorities are often encouraged to take plea bargains rather than go to trial and risk a harsher sentence, she said.
“When we have one and a half million people who are disenfranchised and we only incarcerate a little over 100,000 of them, that tells you that a lot of people who are disfranchised never served a day in prison,” Meade said.
But life is never the same for those who are labeled felons. They lose a number of freedoms, including restrictions on where they may live. They will never re-assimilate into the larger society in the way they did prior to conviction, Tapscott said.
In Florida, it’s easy to become a felon, Meade said. Just drive with a suspended license; catch a lobster whose tail is too short; disturb turtle nest eggs at the beach; burn a tire in public; release balloons into the air.
Evan Rowe, a political science and American history professor at Broward College, said the drug war jails low-level players, while ignoring the dealers at the top who enjoy the political connections and capital to avoid detention.
In Florida, more than 70 percent of those incarcerated have committed non-violent offenses, such as drug possession, Meade said.
Every time someone is disenfranchised, the community loses a voice, Meade said. It eventually becomes politically insignificant.
“There’s not enough political capital to deal with issues that impact the black community and that comes primarily from felon disfranchisement.” Meade said.
Noting the panel’s lawyers, activists and professors, Muhammed Malik of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition said it is important to approach mass incarceration from varied perspectives and positions “to find the best way to move forward.”
Meade said his organization is preparing to launch a ballot initiative to amend the state Constitution so that once a felon completes the non-monetary portion of a sentence, the right to vote will be automatically restored.
His goal is to get half of the 1.5 million disfranchised to convince 10 family members each to support the initiative.
Although Meade can take the bar exam and practice law in other states, he refuses to do so. He compares it to slaves’ crossing states lines to become free people.
“I refuse to even re-enact that,” Meade said. “I’ve decided that I’m staying right here in Florida until we change these things.”
Growing up in Miami, Malik said, he saw friends stripped of their voting rights and was introduced to what he called the school-to-prison pipeline.
In opening comments, Col. Al Pollock, executive director of the Department of Law Enforcement of the Broward Sheriff’s Office, said BSO is working with the School Board of Broward County to refrain from getting involved in school disciplinary issues unless an actual crime is committed.
Pollock also discussed BSO’s civil citation program which gives juvenile offenders a second chance to wipe clean their criminal record. To be eligible, they must be 17 or younger, their offense must be a misdemeanor and they must have no prior record.
Participants must complete 50 hours of community service. “We want to judge our success by the number of kids we keep out of jail, not just the number of arrests,” Pollock said.