September 18, 2005
HERE'S WHAT happens in the big city: A 42-year-old man, who wasted half
his life in jails and prisons because of heroin, announces that he's clean and
wants out. No longer will he do dope or deal dope. He wants to leave the ranks
of the thousands of men and women who for years helped suck the life out of
vast stretches of Baltimore. "I just want to get back to working, and being
productive," the man says. He sounds earnest.
So one day he finds himself on trial for a job. It's not much of a job - busing tables in a restaurant - but it's a way to get a little income and stay busy until he can find something better, and a way to show his wife, a state employee, that he's determined to do the right thing.
The man has one day to prove that he can bus tables.
And he blows it.
Here's the version I got: The man had never had a job like this before, clearing away dirty dishes and flatware in a busy downtown restaurant. He claimed he didn't know that waiters or waitresses - and not the guy who buses tables - collect tips. And that's exactly what he did: He pocketed cash and coin as he cleared tables. The restaurant management caught on, refused to accept what the man did as a novice's mistake, and dismissed him on the spot.
That's how it goes. For men and women who have been on the street or in prison for long stretches of their lives, the comeback trail is a steep hill.
"It's hard out here," dozens of men and women have said this summer as I spoke to them about their search for jobs after prison and drug treatment. Many employers won't consider hiring them, and a lot of ex-offenders fail even when given a chance.
Thousands of Baltimoreans have criminal records, the vast majority of them because of illegal narcotics. And, in this supposedly liberal state, they've spent more time in jail than one might think.
According to a new report from the Justice Policy Institute, Maryland sentencing guidelines result in stiffer jail sentences for generally nonviolent drug offenders than for those who commit more serious crimes. The report pointed out that those caught up in the drug life relapse into doing dope or committing other petty crimes; when they violate terms of their probation, their jail time gets up to a third longer than it would have been had they been punished for the original offense.
This doesn't make sense. It never did. Warehousing drug offenders during Baltimore's long heroin-and-cocaine era has been a waste of money.
While incarcerated (at a cost of $24,000 a year to Maryland taxpayers), addicts should be sentenced to drug treatment; drug dealers should be trained for new careers. Doing otherwise - or, mainly, nothing - has resulted in a recidivism rate of 50 percent statewide, and in Baltimore a terrible waste of human resources, with thousands of unemployed ex-offenders on the street.
One of the toughest realms of social work in this city is ex-offender job placement - and it's one of the most important, indeed one of the great challenges facing Baltimore.
We have in our midst thousands of men and women - uneducated or undereducated, poor, sometimes homeless, addicted or in recovery from addiction - who need to be directed away from drugs and into sustained employment.
There are a handful of nonprofit agencies at work in this realm. One of them is Goodwill Industries of the Chesapeake's ex-offender program. Its official title is Supporting Ex-Offenders in Employment Training and Transitional Services, or SEETTS. It's located on Redwood Street, and every week men and women go there for help. One of their helpers is the job placement coordinator, Chip Reis, a former Catholic priest who maintains a positive attitude singed by realities such as the failure of the 42-year-old man described at the top of this column.
"You want them to succeed, you really do, but not all of them do," says Reis. "I've had people come through here who I would have bet on like Seabiscuit but who still failed. You can't help everybody."
Reis knows where to find jobs. He knows which Baltimore companies won't hire ex-offenders, and which will. He says a lot of employers do not appreciate the scope of the problem in Baltimore, and how they could be part of the solution. So he devotes a day a week to recruiting new businesses for SEETTS.
The rest of the time, Reis runs a class that helps prepare his clients for interviews, and he gives them job leads.
"This is not an employment agency. I don't guarantee jobs. I tell them that up front," says Reis. "I say, `You have to be out there [looking for jobs], too.'"
Several ex-offenders - drug dealers, drug users or dealer-users - called The Sun this summer for help in finding a job. Of those referred to Reis' program at Goodwill, 13 landed jobs, and 24 entered SEETTS. Another 20 made contact with Reis but did not register for his program.
There are a lot of frustrations associated with this work, and it requires acres of patience, but Reis finds it fulfilling. It's some of the most important work going on in Baltimore these days. "Oh, it's very rewarding," says Reis. "Guys will say to me, as they go off to a job or to look for a job, `I won't let you down, Mr. Chip.' And I always answer, `Don't let yourself down.'"
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