Economic opportunity and violence prevention

United Way of the Cape Fear Area

This article originally appeared in the Hometown Hires newsletter, Summer 2015

By Ben David, District Attorney, Prosecutorial District 5

We hold these truths to be selfevident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. --The Declaration of Independence

District attorneys have been called keepers of the public conscience for a reason: we are uniquely positioned to understand the complex conditions that produce crime, and have a sphere of influence to do something about it. We all deal with human tragedy. Tragedies in our cities become statistics in Washington, but they all have names in Wilmington, Wilson, and Winston-Salem. “Little Poppa,” seven-year-old Demetrious Greene, was struck by a stray bullet as he waited in his mom’s car to go to Toys-RUs, collateral damage in the drug wars raging in the inner city of Wilmington. Little Poppa was a victim of birth and circumstance, being raised in public housing where gunfire and criminal activity were so prevalent and brazen that they occurred in broad daylight. Joshua Proutey, a 19- year-old Cape Fear Community College student, was gunned down in the central business district after leaving his job at the children’s theater. Josh was a victim of other people’s circumstances, a pack of criminals whose prospects were bleak and who saw no way out of their situation but to rob people in parking lots. Josh was killed for $10 and a ham sandwich. The young man who murdered Josh is now in prison for life without parole. (His three co-defendants who never fired a shot are in prison for nearly a century.) Little Poppa’s killer, who also killed two other people, is on North Carolina’s Death Row. Justice was served in these cases, but I still wake up at night wondering if these murders could have been prevented.

A year ago, at the height of a wave of gang violence in my district, I was asked to address civic and business leaders to propose a plan to combat it. I challenged them to create Hometown Hires, a program that addresses employment through an organic alliance among existing private, public, and non-profit agencies. It goes without saying that a good job is an effective crime prevention measure. We started with an ambitious goal of placing 300 individuals who are rooted in our community, people who have lived at least one year in New Hanover, Pender, or Brunswick County and come from deep poverty. Job candidates must have the ability to make a ripple effect, pulling themselves and their families out of intergenerational poverty and into jobs with opportunities for growth. The force multiplier of so many individuals participating means we can make the entire area safer with fewer defendants and fewer victims.

Every good business needs a strategic plan and the right partners. I approached Chip Mahan of Live Oak Bank, who rose to success with the mantra that hope is not a strategy. We hosted a series of CEO-only gatherings to lay out the vision and to ask them to hire just one Hometown Hires candidate. No press was invited. We didn’t ask for money. Chip and I acknowledged to the CEOs that they do not run a charity and that we aren’t asking them to hire anyone other than the best employees. We were surprised by how eager these leaders were to meet potential employees and place them within their organizations. An existing relationship with the CEO of the United Way of Cape Fear Area, Chris Nelson, made that agency a natural choice to build and administer the program by screening applicants and collecting job vacancies.

To be eligible, candidates must be nominated by a nonprofit partner, participate in a screening interview, successfully complete a Hometown Hires job readiness academy and enroll in supplementary training or education as needed. Cape Fear Community College created a certificate program for employers with specific training needs, all at no cost. Those who are not punctual or cannot demonstrate a commitment to continuing education are asked to leave the program. Mentors support the candidates by providing encouragement and professional guidance outside of the workplace. Businesses that couldn’t initially place candidates in jobs often invited their employees to serve as Hometown Hires mentors to assist the effort.

People who test positive for drug use or those with a violent criminal history are ineligible. Criminal records are verified through a background check performed pro bono by Castle Branch, a national corporation headquartered in Wilmington. Many candidates have no records at all. My office works quickly with mentors and pro se defendants to resolve outstanding Orders for Arrest or missed court dates. For those with non-violent felonies and misdemeanors, which frequently become like “scarlet letters” on a resume, we investigated to see whether or not the conviction could be removed. There is a class of offenders who are committing lower-level offenses, typically property crimes like car B&Es and drug possession, who are crippling my community and yours too. Structured sentencing and the Justice Reinvestment Act virtually guarantee that these defendants will be getting probation then returning to the street. It is only when these offenders “graduate” to crimes of violence (500 murders were committed over the last decade in North Carolina by people who were on probation at the time) or achieve habitual felon status that prison becomes a long term solution.

Ninety-eight percent of the people who we send to prison will be getting out one day. Of these, two-thirds will be back in a prison cell within two years of release, convicted of other crimes. To keep the community truly safe, in a State where we are not building more prisons but are closing them, our thinking must grow beyond a system of inputs (“lock them up and throw away the key”) to a system of outputs: making sure that the defendants who are on probation or who return to the street following incarceration are succeeding and not committing new offenses. One law that prosecutors fought for and the most conservative Legislature in our State’s history passed should not be overlooked when talking about jobs and reentry. Under N.C.G.S. 15A-145 and 15A-146, people who have one non-violent felony or misdemeanor and no other intervening convictions are eligible to have the conviction removed after living clean for fifteen years (five years if under 18 at the time of the original conviction). My office partnered with Legal Aid of North Carolina and UNC Law School and held a free record expunction clinic. 500 people showed up and many were deemed eligible.

Expunction goes far beyond making a job applicant more competitive—with a felony removed, a candidate is also eligible for public housing, federal student loans, getting an occupational license, and military service. Some applicants literally cried and few could believe that it was my office, the same that once prosecuted them, leading the charge to enforce the expunction law. In the months since this clinic their level of cooperation with my office and law enforcement has improved dramatically—many times as victims and witnesses in criminal cases. By enforcing the laws that are available to them, we are making these individuals stakeholders in the justice system rather than adversaries to it.

On the national level and maybe in your hometown, the conversation between the community most affected by crime and the people tasked with upholding the laws is strained. Look at Ferguson, Missouri. What started out as a discussion on use of force and police accountability quickly morphed into a more fundamental dialogue. It is hard to enforce order in the absence of opportunity and the hopelessness that permeates the courthouse is more than police and prisons can address on their own. Protestors there and elsewhere were not just marching about life and liberty. What kept the momentum going was the perceived depravation of the third, often overlooked unalienable right: The pursuit of happiness.

As New York Police Commissioner William Bratton said after two of his officers were killed: “This is about the continuing poverty rates, the continuing growing disparity between the wealthy and the poor. It's still about unemployment. There are so many national issues that have to be addressed. This isn't just policing, as I think we all well know.” Officers and prosecutors are tasked with serving and protecting, upholding the constitution, and giving victims a voice. When those victims see the police and courts as allies rather than adversaries, they are far more likely to report crime that takes place in their neighborhoods.

One intangible benefit behind the Hometown Hires effort is that it builds trust with the community most in need of justice. Another benefit is the impact of having a role model in the home who is gainfully employed, creating a greater sense of dignity and purpose. Whether that person is a parent, grandparent, aunt, or big brother, watching an adult go to a job on a regular basis is a great example to set for the young people in the home. Children hunger for structure. If they don’t find it at home they find it in each other through gangs. For the last decade, my focus on crime prevention was on children. The biggest deficit they frequently face is a fatherless home. (The Expunction Clinic, New Hanover County Public Library June 2014 most violent area of my district was surveyed: 87 homes, 257 children, four dads.) While I will continue to make children a priority, Hometown Hires makes success for these children the responsibility of the people raising them, moving away from the well-intended federal programs that have largely failed for the last half century. The best way for that to occur is through the private sector, not the government, and at the local level not the national one.

In the past year 97 people were put to work through Hometown Hires. One was a single mom of three, who was able to move her family out of public housing once she completed CNA training and earned a job at New Hanover Regional Medical Center. Another was hired by Monteith Construction and is now on pace to become a foreman of his own team, making over $50,000 a year. Prior to Hometown Hires, his job prospects were limited to waiting tables. The felony he acquired as a teenager was removed at the expunction clinic.

There have been challenges along the way too: These jobs often present the first opportunity for steady work and the difficulty of reliably showing up for that job. Transportation issues and proximity to work have caused some employees to part with the companies that hired them, but the relationships built through the program have encouraged a graceful exit and potential for future placement. CEO Don Croteau of Vertex Rail Technologies knew that many of the employees coming through our program would succeed because of, not despite, the adversity they faced. As a young man growing up in a fatherless home in a Boston public housing project, he saw firsthand how that environment could mold life skills. When combined with hard work and opportunity, this could lead to great success. Don’s 1300 person company came to Wilmington late last year, not because of financial incentives, but because he recognized that in our community, our greatest resource is our people. Don publically committed that 10% of his employees would be hired through Hometown Hires, bringing us close to the ambitious goal of hiring 300 people.

Doing justice means more than punishing the wicked, it also means lifting up the poor and the oppressed. I’ve learned not to be afraid to use the grace of the DA’s office for the greater good. For people stranded in the cul-de-sac of poverty through no fault of their own, and even for some who have made poor choices that have contributed to this circumstance, prosecutors should be intentional about creating conditions for improving their quality of life. When a prosecutor at the end of a thirty year career told me that if he could prevent one person from going to prison it would be more meaningful than putting 100 more in, I knew what he was talking about. Getting 300 people out of the cycle of poverty and crime and into solid careers will do as much for public safety in your community as building any more jails or prisons. To view an overview video and hear employer testimonials, visit

This article was coauthored by my assistant, Samantha Dooies.