Children and their parents took time out of their weekend to attend the National Action Networks (NAN) forum on Crime Prevention and the Cost of Incarceration at Cousins Middle School, Saturday, April 23.
“We’re here to discourage our students in Newton County from engaging in criminal activities,” said Smithie Baccus, a NAN member, at the beginning of the forum. “Through these presentations, our ultimate desire is to have each Newton County student attend college and become a productive member of society.”
Among those appearing on the panel were Newton County District Attorney Layla Zon; Covington Police Chief Stacey Cotton; Covington Assistant Police Chief Almond Turner; Newton County Sheriff Ezell Brown; ACLU Staff Attorney Nora Benavidez, and Special Assistant to the Executive Director Fallon Traylor; the Rev. Gary Thomas of Judah Apostolic Church; the Rev. Dr. Robert Hughes of Bethlehem Baptist Church and Alex Bennett, a member of NAN.
Musical performances featured songs by the Bethlehem Youth Choir, the Cousins’ Cardinal Chorus and Hip Hop Artist/Christian singer Matthew Shepherd.
Young people in the county were encouraged to comply with a law enforcement official’s request.
“The laws are made by the people you elect,” Cotton said. “We are the guards of those laws.”
The criminal element is a very small percentage of the population, he explained, and most encounters between law enforcement officials and private citizens is nonthreatening.
“Often times, compliance is just about respect,” Cotton said. “We’re good, law-abiding citizens. When I stop someone, I’m not stopping you because of who you are, but because of something I saw.
“The officer has some authority,” he said. “He can make a stop if he has reasonable causes. The side of road or a sidewalk is not the places to have a debate. It’s great to comply on the front end, complain on the second.”
Turner agreed, recommending to parents that “we have got to really teach our children to comply now, complain later. We’re not here to harass people.
“In the event you are stopped, find a safe place to pull over, stop your vehicle, put it in park, turn your interior light on and put your hands on the steering wheel,” he said, adding an approaching officer does not know if someone has a real or toy weapon, or anything at all, but it takes just one mistake, and the routine traffic stop could easily turn tragic.
District Attorney Zon said what the Covington Chief and Assistant Chief described are things “we see in the criminal courts. In the District Attorney’s office, we see too many young people committing serious crimes with very serious consequences.”
She used the example of “sexting,” using text messages to send sexually explicit photos to someone else. “Texting a sex scene is very common among young people, but there are crimes associated with that with very serious penalties.”
Zon invited students to make arrangements to shadow someone in the district attorney’s office, a judge or a law enforcement officer, to learn more about the court system and consequences. “There’s nothing more heartbreaking than seeing young people being prosecuted for serious crimes. It’s a waste of life.”
“We’re losing lives when young people are killed, and we’re losing lives when they are incarcerated,” she said. “The best advice I can give young people is don’t make decisions based on advice from people who don’t have to suffer the consequences.”
A former correctional officer, the Rev. Gary Thomas of Judah Apostolic Church, spoke about the cost of incarceration — not just for taxpayers, but for the families of people who have been convicted of a crime and sent to jail.
“We need to stop our young people from glamourizing prison,” he said. “Prison is not glamorous. When you go to prison, you cost your parents some money [if they come to visit]. Young men might go into prison healthy, but that doesn’t mean they’ll come out healthy.
“Think about what you’re doing before you go too far,” he said. “When you go into the system and come out, you lose just about all of your rights. Take responsibility for yourself and stop from going into the system.”
The afternoon ended with the Rev. Hughes reminding those in attendance that it’s important to support young people doing the right thing. “It’s important when young people are introduced to law enforcement and authority, set young people on the path to what’s good.”