Prison or death: Project Safe Neighborhoods gives felons a choice

Published 12:00 am Thursday, October 24, 2019

By Shavonne Walker

SALISBURY — Pamela Smith and her only son Dwon have the same aspirations: she wants better for him and he doesn’t want to disappoint her.

Both mother and son are optimistic about the future following a somber two-hour notification meeting through the Project Safe Neighborhoods program.

The meeting is not a typical “scared straight” program, but it offers those who have been “flagged” by law enforcement an alternative to continued criminal activity. If someone on the notification list is found engaging in criminal activity that involves violence, gang activity and weapons possession and is convicted, that individual would receive a federal prison sentence.

It’s a grim reminder of what a life of continued criminal activity could mean — prison or death.

“You have two options if you continue this game — potentially you could go to prison or your family could go to your funeral,” said Salisbury Police Chief Jerry Stokes. “You can turn your life around.”

Depending upon the circumstances, if a felon is caught with a bullet, it could net them 15 years to life in prison.

About 20 people who attended the Wednesday meeting at the Salisbury Civic Center were flagged by area law enforcement and the local probation and parole system as someone who local, state and federal law enforcement, prosecutors and community partners are watching. The community partners include local workforce agencies, re-entry programs, ministries and concerned citizens.

Each of those who received notification sat in front of a panel of law enforcement partners. One-by-one, the partners shared how the felons’ activity impacts the community and their families, some of whom were in attendance. Pamela Smith was an example.

“Citizens are getting caught up in violence, and they are tired of it,” said Rowan County Sheriff Kevin Auten. “You’re not that great at being bad. You wouldn’t have the record you have it you were. You are putting yourselves at risk. It’s about you today. It’s your choice, your decision.”

There’s no pleasure in sending men and women to prison, said Special Agent Gerod King with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

“This difference between where you are and where we are is decisions,” King said.

He said some decisions will land people in prison. It could be a prison in California, away from children and other family members.

“You can’t make a living robbing and selling dope. Who knows about the OG retirement plan? There is not one,” King said.

The end goal is that those targeted successfully complete probation, said Sylvia Warren, with the local community corrections department.

“There’s no such thing as a suspended sentence,” said U.S. federal probation officer Robert Wyrick said.

In fact, at the federal level, only about 3% of those convicted receive probation, he said.

Diane Jenkins, with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, told the group about a man with a history of criminal activity who was convicted and sentenced to 30 years in federal prison after he was caught with 3 grams of methamphetamine.

China Grove Police Sgt. Jason Overcash made an appeal to the group, too, saying they need to invest in something other than a life of crime involving drugs and guns.

Rowan District Attorney Brandy Cook said she’s gotten pretty good at predicting who will wind up in the court. Cook noted that four in the group had been asleep and nodding off. She said getting caught selling or buying dope in Rowan County means chances of being shot and killed are astronomical.

Those who have been flagged as being part of the Project Safe Neighborhoods program and who come into the Rowan County court system will automatically have their case moved to the top of the pile.

“We’ll ask for higher bonds. We’re working smarter to get you more time,” she said. “Think about your kids and family.”

U.S. Attorney Matthew Martin said there’s been a big effort to reduce violent crime, and it has been focused on those who’ve been flagged.

“Your story can change. Today you can start a new chapter,” Martin said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Rob Lane, who is also the Project Safe Neighborhoods and Anti-Gang Coordinator for the Middle District of North Carolina, gave those in attendance the choice of having at least a minimum wage paying job versus the 15 cents a day they receive in federal prison.

“That $8 an hour at McDonald’s is looking real good right now,” he said.

Pastor Tim Bates said he could easily be sitting where the men and women were sitting.

He encouraged them to use their talents and gifts for businesses and improving their community. Bates said he didn’t understand why some of them would rather do three to five years in prison than three to five years at a college getting an education.

Pamela Smith said she was thankful for the program, which shows that she’s not the only one concerned about where her son will end up.

“I hope he is really taking this in,” Smith said.

She said her son is already on the right path.

For more information about the local Project Safe Rowan program contact Community Resource Specialist Candace Edwards at 704-638-5361 or for more details.