Efforts underway to help people with criminal records reenter society in the Triad

Buckley Report

(WGHP) — Will Pettiford’s food truck has been open for less than five minutes and the line is already a dozen deep. His product is very much in demand.

“We won Yes! Weekly best hot dog, two years in a row,” Pettiford said proudly, as he puts the cheese on a Philly cheesesteak sandwich.

He owns “Big Will’s Backyard Flames,” food truck – and it’s appropriately named. Pettiford is, indeed, big. He was an offensive lineman at North Carolina A&T but before that, he admits he got into a little trouble.

Pettiford comes from a single-parent home.

“Just me and mom,” said Pettiford, of his upbringing. “She was working two or three jobs to take care of me which allowed a lot of free time for before she got home. When she got home, I was an angel, but while she was going to work …” and then he told the story of some of the trouble he got in with some friends who wanted to get back at people who were, in their opinion, doing them wrong. It turned into a series of felonies that had Pettiford do a little jail time and spend three years on probation. Even though A&T gave him a chance to not just play ball but earn a degree, Pettiford couldn’t find work because of his past so he realized he’d have to create his own job, which he did, though he started small.

“I started with a hot dog cart,” Pettiford said. “I learned the game, I learned the industry, I learned the whole vending lifestyle. The capital was the hardest part – just trying to get the money up.”

In part, that’s because Pettiford was fined $20,000 in the incidents.

He’s not the only one like that.

“I worked for the state of North Carolina and just made a couple of bad choices while I was employed, there,” Sheena Beasley said. “I was a young mother, about 32-years-old, then.”

She provided some people DMV materials to which they weren’t entitled.

“Guilty as charged,” Beasley said. “I had a salary of $52,00 a year – that was in January of 2007. In February of 2007, $6.75 an hour. Because of my background, no one would give me employment.”

Communities do very little for people who have spent their time in the legal system and are then trying to rebuild their lives. Getting a job is nearly impossible and they’re no longer eligible for many government safety-net programs.

Even people like Beasley, who never did spend time in jail, run into the issue.

“Could have spent eight years in Women’s Prison in Raleigh but the Lord had mercy on me – the judge had mercy on me – my day in court in 1985 and gave me a five-year suspended sentence with probation and restitution,” Beasley said.

That’s why she’s spent the years since helping others reenter society more successfully with her nonprofit organization called The Almond Connection. And Beasley recently wrote an op-ed for the Greensboro News & Record asking Sen. Thom Tillis to take the work he did at the state level as speaker of the house and do something similar in Congress — and that’s exactly what Tillis is now doing.

“What we found there was that crime went down, recidivism went down – it worked,” said Tillis, of the Justice Reinvestment Act he helped create in North Carolina – though he hasn’t been without criticism for it. “You know, some people say you’re soft on crime, I think we want to be smart on crime and give people an opportunity to reenter society and build a productive life.”

That’s about holding them accountable for their mistakes but then providing a true second chance to succeed.

“Heaven is a place that is full of people who have received a second chance,” said Sammy Perez, who is a living example. See why in this edition of the Buckley Report.

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