CLARKSDALE – As Clarksdale Mayor Chuck Espy made local and national headlines last month stating that he would provide up to $10,000 of his personal money to help want-to-be criminals, gang members, and drug dealers move out of the city to reduce crime, local citizens questioned whether his plan for criminal justice reform was realistic.
Following a recent city board meeting and a community forum on a $5 million bond issue for infrastructure improvement, the mayor cleared up some misconceptions about his plan and rolled out more details to a Mississippi Today reporter.
Espy said the “Second Chance program” started as a pilot initiative one year ago, and focuses on providing ex-felons and individuals with criminal records opportunities to become better citizens through support services, intervention, and/or moving assistance. And he created a GoFundMe page Wednesday asking for $3 million in donations.
“I promised my constituency I would tackle the tough issues that would have the greatest impact on the quality of living in our community. My administration has a NO tolerance policy for crime,” he tweeted after the GoFundMe announcement.
The program is a part of a five-point plan to deter crime that includes:
• A no tolerance policy
• The preservation of life
• Moving assistance.
The highlight of the program, based on social media responses, was the moving assistance plan. When a Mississippi Today reporter released video footage of last month’s news conference, various comments from viewers reflected mixed emotions from many people inquiring why the mayor would give money to criminals.
Espy emphasized in a phone call that his message was misinterpreted and there are benchmarks individuals must meet, he said. This initiative will be “the hallmark of this administration,” he added.
In order to receive moving funds, the individual must secure a job in another state and provide proof of a one-year leasing contract for an apartment in that particular state, said the mayor. The moving fund will only pay the maximum down payment for that apartment and the money “will not go toward the individuals,” he added.
“They may need to leave if Clarksdale has exhausted all opportunities. If they can do better somewhere else, we will help you with some assistance,” he said.
Currently, no other personal donations, contributions, or grant funds have come, said Espy. The mayor’s office oversees the program as of now. As the program moves forward, the mayor said he hopes an established nonprofit entity would take it over, then local government officials can help facilitate. He added his administration is talking with five nonprofits outside of Clarksdale.
“What we’re hoping to do is instead of just cut and paste this entire program and hope one entity will help facilitate – and we can include social services with the (Department of Human Services), Coahoma Community College, the rehabilitation center – we’re hoping that … we will be able to house this program in one nonprofit,” said Espy.
Under the program, participants can come to the mayor and talk about the challenges and struggles they are dealing with. Afterward, the administration will put those individuals in connection with resources available to them in the area: job employment opportunities, social skills, values, ethics and counseling services.
The Rev. John Givins of Pleasant Valley Baptist Church will serve as life coach for the individuals.
“I’ll be doing an assessment of where they are. My goal is to try to empower them to get where they’re trying to go … It’s more than just the spiritual side,” said Givins in a phone call with Mississippi Today.
“I think it’s a big need (for this program). It really don’t start with our adults. It starts with our young people. A lot of people preach from the pulpit but don’t know real ministry. Real ministry is going in the streets.”
Espy said so far, four participants are in the program since the initial announcement who are receiving employment and entrepreneurship services.
The pilot of the Second Chance initiative was successful, said Espy. After starting with 10 participants initially, there were six males and females who completed the program, he said. Their identities remain confidential.
“You want to know the secret of success to this program? People don’t want to know what you know, but people want to know that you care,” he said. “We’re taking the time to invest in them, counseling them … This doesn’t compare to the sports complex that is getting ready to happen or the Wing Stop that’s getting ready to open, this is taking the next step.”
Benneth Lee, CEO and founder of the National Alliance for the Empowerment of the Formerly Incarcerated (NAEFI), said it’s hard to say if a program like this exists other places because “each state is different.” But, he mentioned, Espy’s program, “sounds like a good incentive.”
NAEFI, Lee’s nonprofit based in Chicago, establishes reentry circles – self help support groups – and helps with voter registration in communities with high concentrations of formerly incarcerated and convicted people.