Recidivism: How the pandemic helped Pitt Co. address the issue

Published: Mar. 23, 2023 at 7:30 PM EDT
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GREENVILLE, N.C. (WITN) - Public safety affects all of us, and lowering crime is a big part of that. One glaring roadblock is recidivism - or the number of people who re-offend.

There are lots of factors that play into why someone might end up back behind bars after getting out, but it often starts with access - to things like jobs, support and housing.

Lemel Daniels’ time behind bars taught him he never wanted to go back.

“Feb. the 1st, I finished serving three and a half years,” he said. “It cost me a lot. It cost me more than I wanted to pay.”

He’s now working with the Pitt County Reentry Council to get back on his feet after serving time for a drug offense.

“I’m working on my CDL license right now, commercial driver’s license. I’m studying for it because that’s one of my goals,” Lemel explained.

He said the fight toward a better life is what’s keeping him from looking back.

“I’m from Greenville. I’m from 5th street. I’m from the hood, if you want to call it, I’m from that. But it’s like this, if you apply yourself, anybody can change. I don’t care where you’re from,” Daniels said.

But it can be tough for some people to get back on their feet after serving time. In fact, prisoner recidivism rates from all 50 states average around 68 percent for rearrests within the first three years of getting out based on numbers from the U.S. Sentencing Commission. That percentage gets even higher when you look at five or nine years post-release.

North Carolina trails well behind that number at 40.7% – still much higher than some feel it should be.

“From what I’ve seen, it’s gotten a little bit worse because it’s been a lot harder to get people where they need to go,” said Ralph Soney.

Soney is the Director of the Pitt County Reentry Council - a program that helps people transition from serving time to everyday life.

“Believe it or not, a lot of people don’t have access to a computer, printer, resumes, those kinds of things,” he said.

Soney said substance abuse and poverty in the community seem to be on the rise since the pandemic’s start. Housing shortages have also impacted his ability to get people a stable living situation, which makes the cycle more likely to repeat.

“Individuals who have had more serious crimes, if they’re younger, if they’re sex offenders, they’re a priority for us because they’re more likely to go back into criminal behavior if we don’t find stable housing, jobs, etc,” explained Soney.

Soney said it helps if those finishing their sentence are met with acceptance.

“The question that employers and the community has to face if they want to deal with recidivism is are we willing to forgive people and help people once they come out of prison,” he said.

Sheena Rambert is the jail systems navigator at Pitt County Detention Center.

“You could kind of consider me to be the community liaison, so the middle man between the inside and the out,” Rambert said.

Unlike Soney, she said the pandemic has actually helped Pitt County lower its recidivism rate to 12.9% because it shed a light on what needs existed.

“It gave the opportunity for people to see the need versus starting off new, you don’t know what to tackle first. But when you get a chance to pause and kind of see, ‘What are we missing here? What’s happening? What is the reason?’” she explained.

She said that brought about more resources in the community, to offer access to things like housing, jobs, transportation and education.

“From our standpoint, from our side of the fence, it’s definitely a win,” she explained.

It truly takes a village in every sense of the phrase, but it’s a village that Pitt County is working to build – to help people like Daniels get a second chance.

“Going back to prison is not an option for me. I got a beautiful family, loved ones, son and daughter,” Daniels said. “I’mma do this for me, I’mma do this for them.”

It’s important to note that recidivism is the whole community’s problem - not just for the sake of public safety, but also taxpayer dollars. For example, in 2020, state and local governments spent $86 billion on corrections alone based on data from the Urban Institute.