Group is working toward crime solutions

When you get people such as City Manager Eric Williams, Police Chief Glen Allen, Sheriff R. Thomas Breedlove, Assistant District Attorney Quon Bridges, Schools Superintendent Norm Shearin, school board member Margaret Ellis, City Council member Lonnie Davis, Team Vance director Marolyn Rasheed, real estate magnate Cliff Rogers and local NAACP head James Green around one table, you know something serious is happening.

Throw in church leaders, juvenile justice officials, and representatives of an assortment of other local agencies that deal with crime, families and social services and you have the knowledge and the power to convert big ideas into big results.

That’s the idea behind a new organization with the working title of the Working Group, which first met Feb. 21 as a way to bring the community together to attack crime from the roots up. Rogers described it as an “umbrella task force.”

“I’m going to assume that you’re all here because you have a commitment” of time, energy and resources, said Williams, who ran Wednesday’s second meeting of the group. It was held in the multipurpose room at the Aycock Recreation Complex because the conference room at the police station wasn’t big enough for roughly 30 people.

The group lacks a formal organization, officers or even a mission statement, but it has a consensus that crime doesn’t have to be a fact of life in Vance County. The group also lacks anyone from the county Department of Social Services or the county administration; Williams said he will contact Social Services Director Sam Lane and County Manager Jerry Ayscue to ask them or representatives to attend the next meeting, set for March 16 at 10:30 a.m. at Aycock.

“I see our overall task as seeing how we as a group in Vance County can make a difference to affect crime … and make Vance County a better place to be,” Rogers said.

A crucial part of that effort, he said, is to win grants to add and expand programs that work. He said the task force will need an outside grant writer to meet with the group as a whole and individually to translate the area’s needs into successful grant applications.

Williams pledged to bring a grant writer to the next meeting to get that process moving.

“Our goal is to get some money, some more money, into this community from sources other than those paying local taxes,” Williams said, referring to federal, state and foundation money.

Rogers said he and Green, through their association with the Vance County Coalition Against Violence, are working toward forming a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organization as a fund-raising arm for the coalition. He said that nonprofit group also could serve the Working Group, but the task force is pushing ahead while waiting for those arrangements.

“Time is of the essence,” Williams said, urging the participants to avoid “turf-battle stuff.”

Because of a belief that the problem of adult career criminals traces back to childhood, much of the group’s initial discussions have been about juvenile crime and early childhood. Programs that could eventually reduce the crime rate begin at age 3 or earlier.

Garry Daeke, resources director for the Franklin-Granville-Vance Partnership for Children, said he hopes the Working Group produces ideas for short- and long-term efforts, including unique programs that can entice foundations looking for something new.

The third of children who are far behind on the first day of kindergarten are the third of children who wind up involved with juvenile services as teens and eventually fall into the criminal justice system, Daeke said.

For that reason, the Partnership for Children is launching a program that will give books to new parents who pledge to read to their children, a key step toward school readiness.

“Readiness for school … may be the No. 1 factor for any change in terms of long term,” Shearin said. “I can tell you by the time a child is in the fourth grade his odds for surviving.” That means making it through school and avoiding crime.

Eckerd Youth Alternatives, which runs Camp E-Ten-Etu in Manson, is moving into programs aimed at preventing juvenile delinquency and other problems, said Dave Hardesty, the regional director. He said those programs target children ages 3 to 7.

“Anything we can do prior to the time that our pre-K program begins is extremely important,” Shearin said, adding that only a fourth of children in Vance County are ready when they start school.

For those in the school system who are behind, Shearin said, extra instructional time is proving effective. Vance County Schools used $2 million in new state money this year, a result of the Leandro school-equity lawsuit, to set up after-school programs that allow children to get an extra 90 minutes of teaching four days a week.

And in a good precedent for the Working Group, 17 churches are providing tutorial services to Vance County Schools, Shearin said.

Bridges, who lost a bid for district judge last year, addressed the problem of how the criminal justice system handles juveniles. He said Vance County has only a half-day per month for juvenile court, and “we are suffering today because of it.”

The police chief noted that as with adult offenders, Vance County has more juvenile cases than either of the two larger, wealthier counties that are grouped with Vance and Warren in the 9th Judicial District, Franklin and Granville.

But Vance doesn’t have any more time for juvenile court, and those cases share a court day with domestic cases, a mix that Bridges said provides a terrible example for troubled youths on how to act as adults.

Ellis raised the idea of a teen court, in which juveniles accused of minor offenses are tried and judged by their peers and face sentences of community service. That program would help, Bridges said, but not solve the problem.

He advocated a full day of juvenile court each month, and the working group formed a subcommittee of Rogers, Green and juvenile court counselor Cynthia Yancey to make that case to Chief District Judge Charles Wilkinson and the clerk of court.

Rogers also is collecting a database of the services provided by all of the agencies in the task force.

“We need a tight, written statement, assessment, of all the problems in this community,” and that compilation can be compared with the programs available to reveal the gaps the group must fill, Green said.

“It’s not a matter of picking and choosing,” he said. “Sometimes we get into an argument about whether we should do this or whether we should do that, when the answer is that we should be doing all of them.”