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Effort's goal is to make solid citizens of criminals

Dan Rodricks

July 17, 2005

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TOMI HIERS, who serves in the Ehrlich administration with a half-mile title - executive assistant to the deputy secretary for operations, Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services - believes the Republican governor of Maryland means to do what no Democrat in recent memory was able to do: turn criminals into productive citizens, give a guy a second chance. The administration wants to stop wasting taxpayer money - $24,000 per year per inmate - on a revolving door. "We are trying to change the culture of corrections," Hiers says.

It's about time.

After decades marked by the war on drugs, mandatory sentencing, prison expansion and overcrowding, we have government officials, nonprofit agencies and even business leaders speaking about preparing offenders for a good return to society, supported by drug treatment, job training and counseling. They're trying a holistic approach - identifying inmates' needs, making them employable, and connecting them to offender support groups outside prison walls.

It's a huge challenge - stifling the mindless appetite for more incarceration, funding drug treatment, convincing Maryland businesses to hire ex-offenders - but the Ehrlich administration might be the one that finally puts corrections back into corrections.

Mary Ann Saar, Ehrlich's secretary of public safety and correctional services, speaks regularly about how we've gotten nowhere after years of warehousing criminals. "They come back," she says. "And if they keep coming back at the same status, or worse, what do we expect? So, I say, let's suck it up and do what needs to be done."

It was Saar who brought Hiers into the agency to work on its biggest failing - the recidivism rate.

Half of inmates released from Maryland's prisons return to them within three years, and that has particularly severe consequences for Hiers' hometown, Baltimore. Nearly 70 percent of the men and women who come out of Maryland prisons each year return to the city. Last year, 9,800 came back here. Other years, the number has been in the range of 7,500 and 8,000. Do the math, and you have a handle on just how intractable this problem is, without reform.

Hiers, 29, experienced this depressing side of Baltimore firsthand.

She grew up in the Johnston Square community in East Baltimore, an area of entrenched poverty and drug addiction. She attended Dunbar Middle School before moving on to Western High School. Years later, Hiers and three other women who came out of East Baltimore did an accounting of their old Dunbar classmates; they concluded that all of the boys from their seventh-grade homeroom (33 students) in 1987 were either dead or incarcerated.

Sad but not surprising.

Starting in 1989, through the 1990s, homicides in Baltimore topped 300 annually; the rate has fallen since 2000 but remains high against a downward trend in other American cities. Today, nearly one in five black men 20 to 30 years old is in prison, and more than half are under the control of the criminal justice system in some way, according to a report this year by the Washington-based Justice Policy Institute. Most of these offenders are somehow involved in drugs and the drug trade, the report said. Tomi Hiers thinks the rate is around 80 percent.

Do the math: Without intervention while these guys are in prison, we can expect a few thousand repeat offenders - anywhere from 6,000 to 8,000 doing dope or selling it - back on Baltimore streets every year.

And that number does not include offenders already on parole or probation, or those coming out of the federal prison system. Add the collateral damage from the drug culture - homicides, unemployment, dysfunctional families, neglected or abused children, burglaries and robberies committed in city and suburban neighborhoods to support habits - and you can see why serious, bottom-up reform is needed.

That's what Saar has Tomi Hiers working on, bringing to the Maryland correctional system what she learned in her previous gig, the Enterprise Foundation-managed Maryland Reentry Partnership (REP). An intense case management program that begins while an offender is still in prison, REP claims a 70 percent success rate among about 300 Maryland inmates since 2001. REP costs about $3,000 per inmate.

Taking this kind of approach throughout Maryland, and the United States, requires the big-think/new-think Hiers and Saar talk about. "I know it can work," Hiers says. "I saw it at REP."

But we're talking about a cultural change, and Hiers thinks that might be under way - inside prison, and out. Her boss, Saar, has a seat on the Governor's Workforce Investment Board, and that board, comprising business and government leaders, is taking a look at developing more workers out of Maryland's offender population.

And that brings us to the next big step - persuading businesses to take a chance on giving a guy a second chance.