Court program helps criminal defendants enter job training, forge new paths

Judge Nicole Pastore-Klein picked up a thick yellow folder documenting Tyronne Fowler’s criminal record and smiled at the 28-year-old man sitting in the front row of her Baltimore courtroom Tuesday. His infant daughter, girlfriend and sister sat beaming proudly on the benches behind him.

Fowler, of Cherry Hill, was one of nearly 30 men and women who completed the District Court’s fledgling jobs training and placement program and took part in the courtroom “graduation” ceremony. In exchange, they saw their probation periods cut short, were granted probation before judgment, and had their required meetings with probation officers reduced.

Fowler is no longer worried about his past “dirty-knuckle days.” Instead, he’s focused on the future.

“This offered me the exact career opportunities I needed and wanted,” he said. “It gave me the certifications I needed — and the respect. This is an amazing milestone for me.”

Fowler said he spent two years fruitlessly searching for work when he wound up in front of Pastore-Klein, charged with destruction of property. He enrolled in a St. Vincent de Paul food service certification program in July and found a job on the day he completed the training course.

Pastore-Klein launched the District Court Re-Entry Project a year ago after hearing repeatedly from criminal defendants who came before her that they wanted to work but could not find employers willing to hire them because of their criminal records. Moved to action by the civil unrest of 2015 after the death of Freddy Gray, the judge said she began recruiting organizations that would agree to accept people referred by the court, and agree to train them and place them in jobs in renewable energy installation, automotive repair, construction, warehouse work,maritime transportation and other fields.

Civic Works, Goodwill Industries of the Chesapeake and Our Daily Bread are among a dozen organizations that partner with the court on the program.

Dirrane Cove runs the Work First Foundation, one of the re-entry program’s partner groups. It enrolls participants, many of them young adult first-time offenders, in skills-training programs for careers in various sectors.

“People are afraid of crime rising — and public safety remains a huge concern in Baltimore City,” Cove said. “But when you think about this in the long term, these people are not going to be re-offending at the same rate and entering the prison system at the same rate they’re getting employed. The bigger picture is so important here: Getting jobs so they don’t enter a life of crime.”

The graduation ceremony was the program’s third. Pastore-Klein said more than 50 people have completed the program over the last year — and none has returned to prison or received a subsequent conviction.

“Although the court recognizes that there must be consequences for people’s actions, it also recognizes that there needs to be incentives for people who want to do better, who want to change,” said Pastore-Klein, a Baltimore native.

The program follows a national trend of so-called second-chance programs that started in the 1980s with drug courts that connected offenders to recovery programs with monitoring, supervision, sanctions and incentives. Deborah Wood Smith, an analyst with the National Center for State Courts, said the concept is part of the “problem-solving court movement” that includes specialized services for juveniles, mentally ill people, veterans, and people arrested for failure to pay court-ordered child support, among others. The first re-entry programs popped up about 20 years ago.

“The idea is to stop the revolving door, because it is expensive to lock people up, especially when it is not helping them,” Smith said. “Re-entry is really difficult without these kind of supports.”

Pastore-Klein’s courtroom in Northwest Baltimore was packed with supporters of the program — and of the graduates. Police Commissioner Kevin Davis attended, along with city prosecutors, probation agents and judges in black robes. Former Ravens linebacker, Jameel McClain, was the keynote speaker.

Pastore-Klein runs the program without additional funding and relies on volunteers to help with administrative work. She has applied for a grant for up to $80,000 through the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention to hire a staff member.

Maryland District Chief Judge John Morrissey, who addressed the graduates, said sending people to jail should be a last resort and, when possible, defendants should instead be matched with resources to help them.

“This program is a recognition that collectively, we can’t expect someone to change their path without addressing the underlying issue and helping them — helping you guys get back on your feet,” Morrissey said. “The goal is to see recidivism rates decline so that significant changes occur not only for today’s graduating class, but for all the communities throughout Baltimore.”

Morrissey said he has shared information about the program’s success with all of the 180 District Court judges in the state in hopes it can be replicated.

Despite its strong track record, not everyone who enrolls in the program completes it. Some people don’t ever show up for the training, causing them to be legally out of compliance with the judge’s orders.

Fowler was happy not to be among them.

“It is up to the participants who want to do better for themselves,” he said. “They have to stick it in, stick it out. Left foot, right foot, day and night.”

ywenger@baltsun.com

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