Judge Hill calls for support of School to Justice Partnership

By Leslee Kulba

Buncombe County – In the shadow of the coronavirus, the Buncombe County Commissioners, at their meeting, took strategic action to manage a traditional and proper role of government.

Buncombe County Judge Calvin Hill asked Buncombe County Chair Brownie Newman to join a long list of local authorities supporting what is called a School to Justice Partnership. Hill cited statistics showing a correlation between involvement with the criminal justice system in one’s youth and recidivism later in life. He combined this with data showing minorities experience a disproportionate share of interactions with the judiciary branch.

Hill argued against punishment. He described the difference between the literal interpretation of “penal institution” and “correctional facility.” Punishment is pushing a teammate into the other team’s end zone because he fumbled; correction is working with him after school to help him focus and strengthen his grip. Punishment steps on somebody who’s down and out when he needs help the most. Jesus didn’t punish. He gave second chances. So, luminaries from local school boards, law enforcement, courts, and government are forming a partnership to come up with programs to help youth who mess up, before they become hardened criminals.

Suggested strategies include drafting behavioral contracts, involving parents, mentoring, coaching through restoration, and connecting with counselors for mental health and help with substance abuse. Considering “all that’s going on,” Newman signed the document on the spot.

The county also accepted $24,364 from the Dogwood Health Trust for the purchase, installation, and maintenance of needle repositories. The trust was created at the dissolution of Mission Health in accordance with laws governing the purchase of a nonprofit by a for-profit; its mission is to address “social determinants of health.” The purchase of the buckets rose to the top of hundreds of other needs because of a deluge of complaints about needle litter.

More specifically, the funds will purchase two $110, 96-gallon containers and pay somebody 15 hours a week to empty and sanitize the two new containers and four others that will be positioned in the county. Another $3,669 will support contract overhead and insurance.

In not so many words, the county’s Opioid Response Coordinator Amy Upham explained the explosion in needle litter is a sign of the headway made by organizations passing out free needles in the name of safe substance abuse. County investment in syringe disposal to date has supported smaller disposal units, training, and printing for education and outreach. Upham is finding business owners don’t like needle litter, but they don’t want the containers in front of their stores, either. Commissioner Joe Belcher asked, “What are we doing to help those that don’t want to use those needles anymore?”

On a third issue, handling one crisis at a time and worrying about the supply side later, County Manager Avril Pinder requested fast-tracking consideration of a paid family leave program. The proposal, introduced by the county’s human resources director, Sharon Burke, would give county employees six weeks of paid leave to care for or bond with a dependent. To qualify, a person must be employed by the county for at least one year and have worked at least 1,250 hours during the previous year. Employees already may take up to 12 weeks off in a single year; the plan would give them full pay for the first six weeks, which may be used continuously or intermittently.

The program could cost the county an extra $647,251, but staff explained this could be offset. Employees are currently allowed to cash out unused leave, so if the time taken as paid family leave were to be counted against any cash-out, the policy could come at no additional cost.

Newman, a long-time advocate of eliminating the sale of unused vacation time, reminded members of the public that the board must be careful not to mix human resources policy with budgeting, as that was one of several tricks used by former county officials now serving hard time. As threats of a pandemic have moved the county to crisis mode, Newman and Belcher recommended that staff bring policy language before them for approval as soon as it is ready.

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