By Daniel Rivero
"I did it. I stole the bike," said Alfredo Meza.
It was a simple crime. One that had become routine for him over the years. But there was something different about the bike that he stole late last December: It belonged to former U.S. congressman Joe Garcia, a well-known figure in Florida politics.
"We're gonna get you," the former congressman shouted in a Spanish-language news segment reporting the theft. Security footage caught images of Meza in the act, and the media coverage, coupled with Meza's visibility as a homeless Miami Beach resident, made the ensuing arrest easy for police.
That was the beginning of a story that has taken an unexpected turn. After being held 33 days in county jail, Meza took a grand theft felony charge and was released. Shortly after, he entered into a city-funded non-profit program that helps homeless people get people off the streets and repeat offenders to get back into the job market. Now his story--including a personal reconciliation with the former congressman--is being held up as a model for criminal justice reform.
"The only reason he was arrested was because I'm Joe Garcia. But we can take that and make it into an example," Garcia said.
Reverend Pedro Martinez, who runs the program, is an old friend of the ex-congressman. Meza, 32, was among the first to graduate. Shortly after, Martinez set up a meeting between the two of them.
"I was a little nervous because I've stolen a lot of things and I've never been caught and I've never apologized to anyone," Meza recalled, laughing. "But it's because of this whole situation that I'm changing my life, so I kind of had to suck it up, you know?"
In the meeting, which took place last week, the two were able to patch things up. For Meza, it was a way to confront his wrongs and to move on. For the former congressman, who is running for his old seat in Florida's 26th Congressional District, it served as a way to offer forgiveness and highlight a changed approach to criminal justice that he is pushing on his campaign.
"There's a lesson here," Garcia told me just after the meeting. "It goes to show our concept of how we think the criminal justice system should work."
Following the meeting, Garcia released a criminal justice reform plan that includes calls to ban the box, restore voting rights to nonviolent felons, and to make permanent the Department of Labor's Linking to Employment Activities Pre-Release (LEAP) pilot program, which helps local inmates get employment services prior to their release.
"When someone wants to turn their life around after paying the price for a mistake, that person should be able to get to work and do right by their family," said Garcia in a statement accompanying the plan. "We need a system that keeps society safe both by enforcing the law, and by giving people the opportunity to leave crime behind and become contributing members of our society."
His campaign is still in the primary stages, where he faces a fellow Democratic challenger, Annette Taddeo, and Republican Carlos Curbelo, who is seeking reelection.
In the program, Meza worked as a homeless outreach coordinator, picking up job skills and getting paid along the way. Through the program, he clocked 32 hours of work, and has since found sporadic odd jobs. Already Meza said, he has saved $600 to pay toward the $3,000 restitution he was ordered to pay to Garcia for stealing and selling the bike.
"I got out in February and I haven't stolen anything since, but I need a job soon so I can pay all of this off," said Meza. Since 2009, he has racked up nine different charges in South Florida, including everything from distribution of crack cocaine to cannabis possession and entering a park after hours, according to public records.
Reverend Martinez, who runs the Miami Beach-based program, says that Meza's success so far is early proof that concentrated jobs programs are a way to help people change their lives around. Those who have participated in the effort are homeless residents of Miami Beach, many of whom have cycled in and out of the criminal justice system, stuck in a cycle of poverty, crime and hopelessness.
"I'm a great believer in giving people a second chance and allowing people to get their life back together, and this is what [Meza] is trying to do with his life," said Reverend Martinez.
"This guy is still living in a shelter, working and earning very little money, and he's saving everything to pay it back," he said. "It's a great example for others in society and others who want to get their life back."
Garcia wishes his bike never got stolen, but now at least he has a personal experience he can point to for criminal justice reform. If more places banned the box, he noted, it would be easier for Meza to get a job, pay off his restitution and court fees by legal means, and move along with his life.
"It's not impossible to get a job," said Meza, "it might take a long time but it's not impossible." At least now he knows what he wants.