Program tries to help convicts go straight

 

 

One by one, eight convicted felons walked down a flight of stairs before departing the Aiken City Council chambers.

For Aiken Department of Public Safety Lt. Jake Mahoney, Thursday’s 40-minute Safe Communities Offender Notification wasn’t meant as punishment, but an opportunity.

“What happens from here is their choice,” Mahoney said. “But hopefully we made it clear that the city of Aiken supports them. We’re behind them.”

With nearly 50 residents in attendance, the offenders listened as law enforcement officials detailed the effects of their violent crimes.

Offenders were given – in writing – the penalties they face if they commit another wrongdoing.

“I really hope the offenders listened because everyone in Aiken wants the violence to stop,” lifelong Aiken resident Cheryl Cummings said. “I have children in this community. I have loved ones in this community, and the last thing I want is to see my family as victims of a senseless crime.”

The meeting also offered the felons an opportunity to connect with area service providers, in addition to nonprofit organizations, to assist them in pursuing a more productive path.

“It’s incredible to see an initiative where law enforcement from the national level, the state level and the local level all come together and say, ‘If you don’t stop crime, you will be punished,’ ” Cummings said. “But on the flip side, here are resources that we have in our community to help you make the right decisions. In my opinion, that’s a phenomenal initiative. It’s one that I’ve never seen in my 30-plus years in Aiken County.”

Safe Communities Offender Notification began 16 years ago as violence skyrocketed in Highpoint, N.C.

Since then, an estimated 50 cities have adopted the program, including Aiken.

“We started this program in Highpoint in 1998, and our violent-crime index today is 64 percent lower,” Marty Sumner, chief of police in Highpoint, said. “There’s no question this initiative works. We’ve gone from averaging 20 homicides a year to two.”

As for the city of Aiken, Mahoney says the program has paid dividends locally.

“The goal of the program is clear,” Mahoney said. “And that’s to make Aiken a safe community. In 2011-12, we lost eight lives to violent crimes – two police officers and six of our residents – and since then we’ve seen that number drop significantly.”

As for how which criminals were selected to attend the meeting, Mahoney said it’s based on their previous record.

“We compile all the data and start looking at people who continuously appear on our radar,” he said. “Everyone who sat here tonight is a convicted felon of a violent crime who’s out on probation.

“But making sure these individuals stay on the right path isn’t something law enforcement can do by itself – it’s a partnership with the community. A lot of these criminals have never heard, ‘Hey, you’re doing something wrong’ from anyone other than law enforcement. Well, now they have citizens in the community standing up and saying, ‘Hey, what you’re doing is wrong and we’re not going to tolerate it.’ But at the same time, we’re all willing to help you if you’re willing to help yourself.”

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