The first two inalienable rights, according to the Declaration of Independence, are life and liberty.
The third one is more subjective – and possibly -- elusive. But a local District Attorney says that doesn’t make the pursuit of happiness any less critical in the fight against poverty – which is one way this Chief Prosecutor purports to fight crime.
Ninety-eight percent of those who go to prison will, at some point, get out. So what happens then? An experimental program in Wilmington is quietly working to offer those on the fringes a chance at beating generational poverty.
Key community leaders in this small port city have come to believe that fighting poverty is synonymous with fighting crime.
"What we have to look at, holistically now, is what we’re doing to create economic opportunities for everyone. Because that’s what will truly break the back of generational poverty -- and looking at the long-term unemployment that a lot of people are in that fuels the youth violence, the gang violence."
District Attorney Ben David represents two counties in southeastern North Carolina. The traditional expectation of a District Attorney is summed up in the mission of Ben David’s office, worded this way on his website:
“…to seek justice by ensuring that victim's rights and the public's safety are our number one priority through the fair, equal, vigorous, and efficient enforcement of the criminal laws.”
But David tired of seeing the same people show up in court.
"We expect too much of police and prisons. Enforcing order in the absence of opportunity becomes very difficult."
And two-thirds of those who get out of prison will re-offend and be back in a prison cell within two years.
So with the help of a local CEO, the Chief Prosecutor built a program that, they hoped, would help to break the cycle of recidivism for some crimes.
The two men called a quiet meeting – no press allowed – just other local chief executive officers and business owners… the traditional power base in Wilmington.
"The H.R. directors, respectfully, were not invited to these meetings. We said it had to start at the top. When these thought leaders – when these visionary folks were in the room with each other – and they heard this idea, they said, ‘It’s time to lead from the front.’ And they get it. The reason they’re successful is because of tough love. And I see a lot of the kids at the courthouse with the tough. This is about giving a little bit of the love back. When you’re in a position of power and you’re able to do that, there’s a whole kind of grace that sweeps over this whole effort that is remarkable. And that’s why it’s working."
They call the program Hometown Hires. And they offer jobs to those who may have had a hard time finding employment, for reasons ranging from lack of skills to a criminal record.
Vertex Rail, the new high-tech rail car manufacturer opening soon in Wilmington, has agreed to staff 10% of its work force through Hometown Hires.
Jamir Jumoke grew up in Section 8 housing in southeastern North Carolina and battled his own demons – which led to a couple of stints in prison for felony convictions.
He agrees with the D.A. that so much of youth violence is driven by simple economics.
"When people ask me does Wilmington have a gang problem… my personal opinion is that we have a gang situation. But more or less we have a poverty problem, and gangs are a repercussion of poverty. You know, anywhere that you find poverty you’ll find violence because everything is interconnected with economics."
Jumoke is now the Program Manager of Hometown Hires administered through the United Way of the Cape Fear Area.
And he’s uniquely qualified to oversee it, says his boss, Tommy Taylor, because Jamir Jumoke was the first Hometown Hire.
RLH: "When you talk about Jamir, you smile – almost like a proud papa."
TT: "I’ve just seen Jamir’s professional growth over past year. It’s been really great to see. I’m really proud of him. He’s done a great job here. He soaks up knowledge like a sponge and really works hard. He’s got an incredible work ethic. I’m just proud of him. That’s why I smile."
The program is too new to measure long-term success, but at the one-year mark, Hometown Hires has put 93 people to work. The United Way’s Tommy Taylor says he expects to see other chapters replicate it in their communities in the not-too-distant future.
In Part Two of our series on Hometown Hires, we’ll take a closer look at how the original Hometown Hire, Jamir Jumoke, is now helping one of the area’s newest and largest employers use the program.