Clifton Johnson wipes down his used Lexus once a day with a carefully folded white towel. A mango-scented air freshener hangs from the rearview mirror. The car's polished wood paneling gleams from the rays shining through the sun roof.
The car has more than 119,000 miles on it, but Johnson treats it like it's brand-new. Both are on their second lives.
At 45, Johnson is trying for a fresh start after spending most of his life dealing drugs, in jail or imprisoned. During his days as a drug dealer and supplier, Johnson owned a white Lexus and a green Pathfinder that were confiscated or repossessed. Now he has a 2006 metallic Lexus LS 430, a job and a place he shares with his girlfriend.
"I'm proud of the car, proud of what I got," Johnson said. "I got it legit. I didn't get it from selling no drugs, I didn't get it from anything illegal. I don't have to worry about police come taking it."
Johnson illustrates a trend in the Maryland corrections system — fewer ex-cons are returning to prison as repeat offenders. The state's recidivism rate — the percentage of inmates who are returned to prison or put on probation for new crimes within three years of release — has plunged from more than 51.4 percent in 2000 to about 40.5 percent nearly a decade later, data released Monday show.
The challenge for many ex-offenders, job counselors and substance abuse treatment providers repeatedly tell them, is to stay away from "people, places and things" associated with their past lives. While Johnson, has only been out of prison for one year, those who know him say his success provides a road map for ex-offenders.
Johnson, who has been incarcerated three times, was last released on Oct. 2, 2012, after serving seven years of a 20-year sentence for drug distribution.
He was granted early release to the Jericho Reentry Program, which helps ex-offenders transition back into society. Jericho helped him find temporary housing, put him through a conflict resolution program and taught him computer skills. Before his program "graduation" in August, a nonprofit that offers transitional housing to ex-offenders hired him as a housing coordinator.
Johnson spends much of his work time in his car, driving between the organization's four halfway houses, where he checks on residents and makes sure the cable TV and utilities are on. He also takes tenants to medical or rehabilitation appointments and runs a food pantry he started himself.
The constant shuttling suits the energetic 5-foot-10, 172-pound Johnson, a speed talker whose hands gesticulate like a conductor to emphasize his points. The first time he walked into the nonprofit Together We Can, his boss recalled thinking to herself, "We've got a live one." His energy filled the room.
His nickname is "Man," probably from his mother calling him her "little man," he guesses.
As he drives to and from the halfway houses, he often passes his old haunts and reflects on how far he's come.
There's Easterwood Park, where he started drinking beer and selling marijuana at age 12 because he coveted the new shoes he saw drug dealers wearing. He points to where Ben's Bar, now torn down, existed — a place where he used to set up shop. He drives past the corner of Westwood and Ruxton avenues, where teddy bears hang from two light poles, marking where two young men were killed this year.
His aunt's boyfriend was fatally shot on a nearby corner, he said, and yards away, he once engaged in a gun battle with "stickup boys" who came to rob him. There's the hole in a retaining wall in an alley where he hid his stash and served customers.
"See that pay phone right there?" he said. "We used to run up these alleys there."
He does not romanticize his past, nor does he stop on these streets for long to chat with old acquaintances — one of his self-imposed rules.
"Ain't no standing on the corner talking to them," he said. "I see guys now sometimes when I ride that I used to roll with back in the day. I tell them I'm not in it."
He's respectful, he said, and he doesn't judge what they're doing. He even hopes they respect him. He may give old friends a pack of cigarettes or a few dollars, but he doesn't trade phone numbers or make plans to meet up.
"Ain't no riding in my car, none of that," he said. "I just cruise on through. I just keep it going."
On a recent afternoon, he drove his Lexus along North Bentalou Street and turned onto Riggs Avenue, where he rolled to a stop at the site of an apartment complex where he once lived — and nearly died.