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Local group seeks to help offenders reenter society

From finding a job to securing housing, having a criminal record can make life difficult. For those returning to society after serving time in prison, this is especially true. A newly formed group in Washington, however, wants to form a local council to help former offenders reenter the workforce and live normal lives.

Thursday, the Justice Reinvestment Group of North Carolina, a local LLC formed earlier this year, will host a Beaufort County Reentry interest meeting from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at American Legion Post 263.

“A lot of people are getting out and they don’t have any other resources or services,” said Barbara Gaskins, president of the Justice Reinvestment Group. “Because of that, they are reoffending. This is our way to engage the community, engage returning citizens, justice-involved citizens or directly-impacted citizens.”

Gaskins, who has been involved with helping formerly incarcerated people reenter society since 2012, has a background in mental health, substance abuse and criminal justice. She and other partners founded the Justice Reinvestment Group earlier this year to serve as a resource management agency, offering needs assistance, case management and referral services for those involved with the criminal justice system or returning from incarceration.

“The streets come to you open armed when you get out of prison,” Gaskins said, paraphrasing another member of the group who had previously been incarcerated. “They want to give you things such as drugs or the fast money. But the community isn’t as open-armed as the streets are. That’s what we’re trying  to bring to light. The community needs to step in and give a second chance.

“Whatever you’ve done in the past, you go to jail or you go to prison. You’ve paid that debt to society, so when you’re released, there should be some help. In order to be an upstanding citizen and reacclimate into society, you have to be given a second chance.”

The group is currently seeking government funding to assist in its efforts, according to Gaskins, and is seeking to establish partnerships with government agencies and attorneys.

The effort to assist former offenders returning to society is not limited to Beaufort County. Rather, it is a growing trend statewide. In 2017, the N.C. General Assembly and Gov. Roy Cooper formed a State Reentry Council Collaborative, which brings together government officials, nonprofits and other groups working to address reentry.

In recent years, 14 local reentry councils have been formed for individual counties or regions, including one serving Craven and Pamlico counties and another serving Pitt County. Another is in the works to serve Washington, Tyrrell and Hyde counties. Gaskins says she would like to see something similar happen locally.

“We’re ultimately trying to create a second chance alliance here in Beaufort County,” Gaskins said.

American Legion Post 263 is located at 1126 Cherry Run Road, Washington. To learn more about the statewide efforts to improve reentry, visit www.ncdps.gov/our-organization/adult-correction/reentry-programs-and-services. To learn more about local reentry councils and the statewide Second Chance Alliance, visit www.ncsecondchance.org. Anyone interested is welcome, and there is no cost to attend.