Add To Favorites
Reform: Wilmington city officials talk marijuana decriminalization, 'racist' gang labels
Star-News - 12/7/2020
Dec. 7--On Dec. 2, 20-year-old Nasir Leonard became this year's 20th homicide victim in Wilmington.
Councilman Kevin Spears, alongside Councilman Clifford Barnett and Mayor Bill Saffo, held a community meetup the next day behind the "Black Lives Do Matter" installation in Jervay Park to discuss the recent spate of community violence.
Community members said tough-on-crime policies were not doing enough to prevent violence and in some cases were contributing to the problem by making it harder for many to gain employment or college admission.
They found sympathetic ears in Spears and Saffo, who both acknowledged job opportunities and restorative justice need to be part of the solution.
"In my view, the root cause of a lot of the crime we see is poverty and opportunity," Saffo told the StarNews in a Friday interview. "We need people to be able to get jobs. I do agree that after a person has served their time and fulfilled release requirements, I do think their record should be expunged."
In separate interviews with the StarNews after the meetup, Spears and Saffo further explained their perspectives on criminal justice reform.
They both support decriminalizing marijuana, a preliminary recommendation from N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein's racial justice task force which would treat marijuana as a civil offense and give citations in lieu of arrest.
"I think there's been a lot of people arrested for marijuana for years and I think it's time for us to really look at that," Saffo said. "We're starting to see states decriminalize and even legalize it. I think locking people up for marijuana is wrong and a waste of jail space and court time."
"I think decriminalization is a great idea," said Spears. "There are some things that are directly linked to unnecessary interactions between police and citizens. So if we can minimize those interactions, a person doesn't necessarily need to go to jail for certain amounts of marijuana."
Both also said while they support providing more funding to other community programs, they don't support reducing funding for the police.
"I think if you have the community initiative and bring it to us, fine, but we don't need to rob Peter to pay Paul. We'll find a way to fund it," said Spears. "With what we have right now, what would the talk of defunding the police do to morale? Not every officer is a bad officer."
"It's hard for me to take money away from the program with the most calls for service," said Saffo, adding that Wilmington police are called over 180,000 times a year. "I think we should we look for different ways to plug some of these programs in our community and have a thorough examination of how we can fund these programs. We've got to find where the money is coming from."
City council is currently reviewing budgetary recommendations with staff.
Both Spears and Saffo also said they believe the list of criteria used to label someone a validated gang member needs reform. Someone does not have to be charged with a crime to be labeled as such.
North Carolina statute 14-50.16A states the criteria used to label someone a gang member include using "language or terminology associated with a criminal gang," wearing "the display of colors or style of dress associated with a criminal gang" and being "identified as a criminal gang member by a reliable source, including (but not limited to) a parent or guardian."
"I think the state legislature ought to review that policy, absolutely," Saffo said. "I think any time you tag someone as something you do need to evaluate them fairly. But to just take someone's word and look at the color they're wearing isn't enough."
Spears was blunt.
"It's racist," said Spears. "You see a young Black boy wearing a bandana and that directly links them to a gang. But you see a young white boy wearing a bandana and it's nothing."
Asked if he thought the validation program was racist, Saffo said, "I think it has connotations of racism."
"(Gang validation) should be based on significant fact," he continued. "And there are some people who are in a gang in youth but get out of it and leave, but they're still deemed as gang members and it comes up on a background check and makes it harder to get a job."
Reporter Jonathan Haynes can be reached at 910-343-2261 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
(c)2020 the Star-News (Wilmington, N.C.)
Visit the Star-News (Wilmington, N.C.) at www.starnewsonline.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.