Will change in law help get young offenders back on right track?

Published 12:00 am Sunday, July 17, 2011

Editor’s note: The juvenile crime rate has been declining in North Carolina for more than a decade.That’s the good news. But each year thousands of people who committed crimes as juveniles do the same as adults and wind up in prison. How do these lives get off track and what would it take to keep young offenders from repeating their mistakes? Today the Post takes a look at the issue with three stories:
• An interview with one such person, first arrested at the age of 15.
• A roundup of local prevention efforts and programs.
• A look at a proposed state law that would raise the age at which teens would begin to be treated as adults in the criminal justice system. Page 2A
By Shavonne Potts
SALISBURY — William Elliott Harrison has served four years of a six- to eight-year prison sentence. It is not his first, but he hopes it will be his last.
Harrison is a habitual felon. Since the age of 15, he has been arrested more times than he’s had birthdays.
Harrison is 35.
His first run-in with the law? “Selling dope,” he says simply.
At 15, he was hanging out in a pool hall when police caught him with drugs. It was his first felony. In 1992, when he was 17, he was arrested for cocaine possession.
Harrison says he had issues at home that forced him to care for two younger siblings.
“All of us were spread around. Family gonna look out for family, so I had to do what I had to do,” he says.
He dropped out of school. In the years to come, he would be arrested nearly two dozen more times by the Salisbury Police alone. Many of his arrests involved drug possession.
Now in Piedmont Correctional Institution’s minimum security prison on U.S. 29, Harrison says he turned to selling drugs as a way to provide.
“I couldn’t get a job at the time, and once you get a felony …. Somebody gotta eat. If the baby goes hungry, you gotta feed them right then. You can’t wait two or three weeks and get a job,” he says.
Although he says his felony kept him from obtaining a job early on, he was able to earn a legitimate paycheck for a while.
He has tried to get out of the lifestyle more than once, he says, including the last time he was released from prison. He worked at Freightliner as a temporary employee but was never made permanent.
Crime after crime
Throughout the next several years, Harrison had several stints in and out of jail for drug possession, but in 2001, he was sentenced to prison for his involvement in a murder. He was charged with accessory after the fact of murder, but pleaded guilty to firearm possession by a felon. Officials said he hid a gun for a man arrested and later convicted of murder in a 1999 shooting.
In 2005, during a drug raid at a home on Park Avenue, Harrison was arrested and handcuffed with his hands behind his back, according to police reports. Officers had seized drugs and were searching the home for other drugs in another room. Harrison, seated on a couch leaped toward a coffee table and swallowed a crack “cookie” — crack cocaine formed into what looks like a round cake that hasn’t been broken up for individual sale. Harrison had to be taken to the hospital. He was found guilty of altering/destroying evidence.
In January 2007, Harrison was the driver of a vehicle when it was stopped. A police report said he tried to eat a baggie containing cocaine. He had the bag hidden behind gold fake teeth or “fronts.” The officer noticed one side of his face looked puffy. When the officer told him to open his mouth, the officer reached in and grabbed the bag. He was again charged with altering/destroying evidence.
In May 2007, Harrison was the passenger in a vehicle that was stopped for a seat belt violation. Officers searched the vehicle and the passengers. Harrison was arrested after a baggie containing cocaine fell from his pants.
In September 2007, Harrison was convicted of habitual felon, cocaine possession, assault on a police officer, destroying evidence and communicating threats. These are the charges he is currently serving time for and is likely to be released in 2013.
Five children
Harrison says his responsibility shifted from taking care of his sister and brother to taking care of his children, who are now 15, 14, 12 and 7-year-old twins.
His children are at the critical age where they could take the same path he did. The oldest is the same age he was when he was first arrested.
“I tell him, don’t follow in my footsteps. Right now most kids come up and start selling. I’m just glad my kids ain’t like that,” he says.
Harrison, who got his GED in prison, says his oldest is smart. “He’s a genius … They are all smart.”
He told them whatever they do in life, do it, “as long as they stay out of the streets,” he says.
Harrison has had conversations with his children and is honest with them about his dealings with law enforcement.
“I keep it real. I lay it down to them. I say, ‘Don’t do this.’ ”
Harrison doesn’t believe his lack of parental guidance led him to a life of crime. In fact, he lived with an aunt who he says took good care of him and even got him a job in his early 20s. He lost the job when Cone Mills closed its Salisbury plant. He admits he did what he wanted, despite his aunt’s care and concern.
“I got a lot of support, but when that baby needs something, you gotta feed that baby,” he says.
His girlfriend even convinced him to stop, but when she needed money to pay a bill, Harrison did what he knew — he sold drugs.
“It’s a revolving door,” he says. He would advise teens to stay away from a life of crime.
‘Do the right thing’
Harrison says teens today need to get a pat on the back and know someone cares.
He doesn’t fight the stigma of his record. “Where I’m from, they know me. They know I sold dope,” he says.
But he hopes once his sentence is complete, he can get a job to take care of his children.
Does he think he’s a bad person?
“No, I just sell dope,” Harrison says.
He hopes to prove the naysayers wrong. Harrison will be released from prison in less than three years.
“I’m trying to do the right thing when I get out. This ain’t no place for nobody.”
Contact reporter Shavonne Potts at 704-797-4253.