Ex-offenders need help finding way back to life

Part of the solution for a guy like Eric Brooks could have been the Maryland Reentry Partnership, which has been in place for five years. Founded under the auspices of the Enterprise Foundation and now a part of Catholic Charities, it's an intensive case-management program that hooks inmates up with services they'll need on the outside - housing, health, employment, education, drug treatment - about three months before they're scheduled to come out.

The program is limited, with only 10 case managers serving, for now, only MTC inmates, and only those who either come from or plan to return to five Baltimore ZIP codes: 21213, -15, -16, -17, -18.

Eric Brooks didn't qualify.

Had he, he would have attended a meeting like the one held in MTC the other day.

There were 11 inmates, ranging in age from 19 to mid-40s, seated in a circle of chairs, along with about 25 men and women from a variety of nonprofit agencies who'd come to offer them help.

The REP case workers, ex-offenders themselves, had some interesting advice to share with the inmates as they prepare for release:

"A good support network is absolutely essential. If you don't have one, build one."

"Success on the outside is all about relationships or it ain't about nothin'."

"Jobs just don't happen; they take work. Don't try to find a job on your own - you'll just get discouraged. Get some help."

"When I came out, all I had was the lifelines I had on the street. I didn't have a support network like this."

"You don't know what you don't know, and I mean a lot of little stuff about survival."

The inmates seemed focused on the discussion, listening carefully. Here were people willing to guide them on the outside, to be their advocates and counselors. Maryland REP is a voluntary program, but the inmates would be fools to say no to it.

Maryland REP claims a 70 percent success rate since 2001 - at a cost of only about $3,000 per man. It's a pretty simple concept, now a national model. It should be offered in all Maryland prisons.

The woman who runs REP, Rada Moss, wants to bring REP to prisons in Hagerstown, Jessup and the Eastern Shore. The state has an innovative program called RESTART, aimed at successful offender re-entry, but it's in only two of Maryland's 30 prisons.

Expanding this effort takes commitment and money - and elected officials who are willing to support it. Too many just pay lip service to the concept of rehabilitation over mindless incarceration. Too many worry about being branded soft on criminals, particularly in an election year like 2006.

But there's nothing soft about fixing a costly system that dumps thousands of clueless offenders on the street, setting them up for failure and the public up for more crime.

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