Atlantic City councilman knows firsthand about second chances
State and city leaders are heralding Atlantic City as a place for second chances.
The new re-entry outreach is headquartered with the anti-violence unit at the city’s Carnegie Building. The idea is to have those who have been incarcerated and rejoined society help others do the same.
But when it comes to City Council, there is only one member of the nine elected officials who has walked that path himself.
“I am the only person on this dais with a criminal history,” Councilman George Crouch said as last week’s council meeting was about to end.
Solicitor Robert Tarver warned Crouch against speaking about the issue.
“I think he’s speaking about his personal experience,” Mayor Marty Small said, in allowing Crouch to continue.
“I asked the question, ‘How long am I deemed a criminal?’” Crouch said. “How long do I wear that cloak?”
“When you Google my name, the first thing that pops up is a story about how I was removed from the school board because of my criminal history,” he later pointed out in an interview with BreakingAC. “Not that I’m a councilman. Not that I’m a homeowner. Not that my son is about to graduate with a master’s degree. None of that because I have a criminal history.”
Despite the negative focus, Crouch said he will continue to share his history in hopes of showing others with criminal pasts you can be more than who you were.
Growing up ‘Animal’
Crouch was born and raised in the old Virginia Avenue Courts by his grandmother.
“I had a great, great, great person who raised me,” he said. “She instilled a lot of values in me. They got lost in my teenage years, but now I live my life primarily to make her proud.”
His nickname, “Animal,” came from his teen years, too, although not in the way many might think.
Crouch said he had a beard since he was about 15. He also had a love of coconut Yoo-hoo.
One day, after he quickly downed his favorite drink, a friend cracked: “Why don’t you swallow the bottle and spit out the label like Animal on the ‘Muppet Babies’?”
Soon everyone was calling him Animal to get a rise out him. Eventually, he just gave in and answered to it.
Forty years later, the nickname lives on.
Crouch was 26 when he came home from prison in 1994, after serving time for dealing drugs.
“I had an addiction, and the addiction was money,” he said. “I’ve never been high a day in my life.”
Released two years after his beloved grandmother died, he knew he needed to do things differently.
Crouch went straight to William “Speedy” Marsh, who was community coordinator at Uptown Complex.
“I went to him on a Thursday,” Crouch recalled. “Monday morning, I was reporting to work at the Flagship Hotel.”
He started out working maintenance for $5.05 an hour, and is now the mechanical lead 29 years later.
“I don’t know what would have happened if I hadn’t been able to connect,” Crouch said.
He knows what could have happened.
The Saturday between his meeting with Marsh and his first day on the job, “an individual came to my house telling me how I could do something illegal to make money,” he recalled.
“Me and that individual are no longer friends because I wanted better,” Crouch said. “There’s a lot of people who want better and are willing to work for it.”
Not everyone will go down the right path, even with help, he acknowledges.
“It’s not a guarantee they will do the right thing, but we have to find out,” Crouch said of offering a second chance. “I’m not going to lie to you, because it was a struggle for me but I was determined.”
He also wanted to give back.
Crouch was president of the Atlantic City Dolphins for more than a quarter-century and worked with children in recreation.
He said the hardest part in becoming a councilman was giving up his job in the Recreation Department, but he felt he could do more from his new position.
He also credits Marsh with that.
Becoming a councilman
“Ten years ago Speedy told me, ‘You will sit in my Fourth Ward council seat,’” Crouch recalled the then-councilman predicting. “I told him, ‘I don’t think so, Speedy.’”
When Crouch was sworn in to council Jan. 1, it was Marsh who administered the oath.
Crouch served an elected position before but his past got in the way.
He served 4½ years on the Atlantic City Board of Education until 2011, when a new law barred anyone with a criminal history from serving on a school board.
He worked with the children of that school system during his 24 years in recreation.
“I can get paid as a public servant working with kids, but I can’t volunteer my time to sit on the school board,” he said. “It’s important to show these kids you can mistake but come back from it.”
He also noted his record can keep him from a board seat, but not from running for governor.
“I truly feel without the mistakes that I made I wouldn’t be the man that I am,” he said.
Crouch commended Mayor Marty Small’s programs to help those who have been incarcerated.
“He had to know he was going to take a lot of heat,” he said.
Much of that negative focus has come from those outside Atlantic City, the mayor has pointed out.
Crouch agrees, noting those from the city have a firsthand understanding of the need for second chances.
“They see it in their families,” he said. “They know their family members need help.”
If those returning from incarceration are not given an opportunity, they will return to that life that got them in trouble, he explained.
“In my heart of hearts, I truly believe no one wants that life,” Crouch said. “If they can come home and provide for their family, that gives them a chance. If Atlantic City is truly to be a second chance city, we need to put in place things and people to put that forward.
“People can change. They really can if given the opportunity,” he added. “They have to want it too. It’s definitely a two-way street. There are a lot of successful stories out there.”