Editor’s note: This is part two in a series of articles examining the implementation and impact of Project Safe Neighborhoods in Clayton County.
JONESBORO — Fighting crime is about more than arresting criminals. It’s also about stopping the cycle that drives people to commit crimes in the first place.
As the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Atlanta partners with Clayton County law enforcement agencies, District Attorney Tracy Graham-Lawson and community groups to crack down on hotbeds of violent crime, they also are working in the trenches with convicts returning to society.
Project Safe Neighborhoods, a U.S. Department of Justice initiative launched in 2001, aims to reduce gun and gang violence by adding intervention and prevention as well as targeted enforcement in high violent-crime areas.
According to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, Clayton County saw 1,841 violent crimes reported in 2016, including 48 murders, 188 rapes, 759 robberies and 846 aggravated assaults. Members of U.S. Attorney Byung J. “Jay” Pak’s office work with committed community groups to provide support for those at risk of committing violent crimes or returning to crime after serving time.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Laurel Boatright stressed that Pak’s office is very particular about working with “committed” community groups — no fly-by-night grant-getters need apply, she said. One of those committed groups is Hearts to Nourish Hope, a Riverdale nonprofit that provides housing, job training and other assistance. Recently, stakeholders met there to brainstorm over sandwiches and chips about helping people get out of “the life.”
That help includes things like free removal of tattoos on the hands, neck and face and collecting donated suits so that parolees can go to job interviews. It also includes state and nonprofit agencies paying for employee bonds, hard-copy birth certificates and MARTA passes so people can get to those jobs.
“It’s not just the front end but also the back end and help with reentry from prison,” Lawson explained. “Because frankly, without housing, jobs, transportation when they’re just released from prison, we’re really setting them up for failure.”
Hearts to Nourish Hope CEO Deborah Anglin credits Lawson’s office with donating about $6,200. “People don’t see the flip side of how much the district attorney and her staff are giving the community,” she said. “Clayton County does a lot for re-entry, and Tracy Graham-Lawson is a leader in [pre-trial] diversion.”
Senior Deputy Chief Assistant District Attorney Sheryl Freeman added that Lawson also has added domestic violence accountability to the mix, while Juvenile Court Judge Steven Teske “is putting Clayton County on the map” as far as juvenile intervention.
Nicole Benton, a licensed counselor who works with inmates, said a huge problem is addressing the trauma that most of her clients have faced as part of rehabilitating them for life on the outside.
“I have been doing this for 20 years,” she said, “and I have never seen so much trauma. It’s horrific, some of the things I’ve heard. A lot of them have PTSD. They get diagnosed in prison, get medications, get out, then don’t know how to get care.”
While dressing for success is an important part of reintegration into free society, Benton pointed out, “No matter how many suits we throw at them, they’re traumatized. Families don’t understand why they fly off the handle.”
To help with the transition, inmates at the highest risk of committing violent crimes when they get out receive intensive classes at reentry facilities. The current group started 11 weeks ago with 29 inmates — all but one are gang members and they are responsible collectively for 235 crimes.
Dr. Danielle Sweat-Whylly, community outreach specialist for Pak’s office, said the group is now down to 22 inmates. Two were sent to other facilities after getting into fights: “There is zero tolerance for seg [segregation for fighting in jail].” That zero-tolerance policy is a high motivation.
If they complete the program, seven of those convicts, who Anglin said “have names and faces,” will be coming home to Clayton County.
“Folks are coming back to us. It’s our choice how we receive them,” she said. “Those specific humans are who we’re committed to. They’re coming back to within 50 miles of this place. It gets real real, real fast.”
“They’re a great group of guys,” Whylly said. “They have a lot of aspirations about coming home. We want them to have something to come home to.” That means job referrals, GED classes, gently-used suits and reconnecting with family members.
It also means connecting with what the program calls a “credible messenger” — that is, a former offender.
Dwayne Jones, an ex-offender from Philadelphia, said, “I’ve been in the gang, waist-deep in the gang. I’ve been in the penitentiary, I’ve been shot, I’ve been in the psych ward. God saw fit to come through.”
Now active with The Rock Church in Forest Park, Jones said, “When I stand here, I can communicate with these brothers. When we come together as a unit, there’s power in that.”
Omar Howard, another ex-offender who mentors juvenile offenders through his program Freedom is a Choice, said his group’s “forward-thinking” curriculum not only teaches young people basics like etiquette, health and leadership, but also lets them be kids: “We do trips —museums, laser tag, bowling. We meet with them. We check on them in school.”
One young man attending the meeting, who is not in school but who is working, stood up.
“We get no love. Neighbors, teachers, they just don’t know how to show love to young folks. Y’all grown folks should take five minutes, one minute. If we see that y’all care, we take that in. Even if we got sharks all around us, demons all around us.”
He then spoke of younger children at risk of ending up in prison.
“This young generation that’s coming up, they really need your help, for real, for real,” he pleaded. “The parents say ‘you’re bad,’ put ‘em out, they stay on the streets, go to their partner’s house, robbing for fun, getting money for fun.”
He said little things — goal charts, earning $5 here and there, events with food — make all the difference.
“You got food, they gonna come quick. We hungry!”
More than that, though, he thinks free hugs make a difference, especially to the kids who look like they’re in dire straits.
“‘Cause we all need it, though. Their parents ignore them, their toes hanging out their shoes, T-shirts ripped up, know what I’m sayin’?”
- Visit Project Safe Neighborhoods at https://www.justice.gov/usao-ndga/PSN
- Young people can seek help at Hearts to Nourish Hope http://www.heartstonourishhope.org/ and Freedom Is A Choice http://www.freedomisachoice.net/
- To donate new or gently-used men’s business attire, contact Danielle.Whylly@usdoj.gov or 404-581-4646.