Stephen Smith was just 17 years old when he was convicted of second-degree murder. Now, 23 years later, he’s built himself up into the successful owner of M.S. Lean, a landscape company that employs at-risk youths in Buncombe County, North Carolina. He wants to make sure they don’t make the same mistakes he did.

Smith is one of the main driving forces behind two initiatives that are appealing for funds from the county this month: building racial and economic equity within the county, and keeping people employed rather than incarcerated. The county has the choice of either funding these initiatives, or building a new $45 million jail.

Mandy Stone, assistant county manager and health and human services director, describes this choice as an investment. “We make large economic development investments to bring businesses into our community, and those are smart investments,” she said. “It’s equally smart to invest in the talents and skills we have within our community.”

Smith agrees with Stone. The crime rate, he thinks, is just as much a matter of economics as building business is.

“Have you ever thought about a time when you didn’t have money, how you felt?” he asked. “If you see a kid on the corner and he is robbing or stealing or selling drugs, the base of it—nine times out of ten—is economics. We want to create an economic stronghold inside of these communities so people don’t have to do that.”