Rodricks: A cycle-breaking program Baltimore could use

Two men called me within the last two weeks eager for information about jobs for young guys about to come home from prison — a grandson in one case, a former foster child in the other. It’s a common and fraught concern: Inmates released without a clue about employment, and ending up in the prison-into-crime-into-prison cycle.

They might receive some vocational training behind the walls. They might get some advice about re-entry. But once paroled, a lot of men and women flounder as they try to readjust to life among the rest of us. Maryland has made significant progress in reducing recidivism — the rate at which ex-offenders return to the correctional system within three years of their release — but the problem persists, especially in Baltimore.

Inmates from the city make up more than a third of the state's prison population. Three years ago, the Justice Policy Institute and the Prison Policy Initiative reported that Maryland taxpayers spent about $288 million annually to incarcerate people from the city — $47 million for inmates from West Baltimore alone.

If I had the power, I’d take a wrecking ball to the corrections system and start over. For all but the most violent offenders — those sentenced to life — prison would become a place where, from day one, an inmate prepares for successful re-entry. Education, vocational training, counseling in life skills — the years spent behind the walls would focus on reducing the risk of inmates repeating bad behavior, causing more harm and costing the state more money.

And I would have a job ready for every able-bodied adult from the moment they step outside the fence. They would have some supervision as they made the transition, but they would work. And they’d get paid as soon as possible, so they could see the value of their labor. Getting busy, and getting busy fast, is key to re-entry.

A New York-based organization called the Center for Employment Opportunities developed this model years ago. It has been studied and found to be effective. And, if Baltimore is lucky, the operation will come here.

CEO has 18 programs in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Oklahoma, Colorado and California. It has agreements with state and local agencies to put inmates to work — as janitors or groundskeepers, for instance — within days of their release from prison. The funding for the jobs comes from a variety of sources — in Baltimore, two major foundations have been approached about backing the program — and CEO employs and supervises the inmates.

These public-sector jobs are considered transitional. Inmates work four days a week; they get paid and evaluated daily. They spend the fifth day working on finding a permanent, full-time job.

CEO says it has placed 25,000 ex-offenders in private-sector jobs over the last two decades. In 2012, an independent evaluation of the program showed a recidivism rate between 16 and 22 percent lower than the general rate. The evaluating agency called that result “rare” for an ex-offender program.

The New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services found that CEO reduced felony arrests and convictions in New York City by nearly 20 percent. That city’s recent success in reducing violence stands in stark — very stark — contrast to Baltimore’s.

There are several good ex-offender programs, in Baltimore and in other cities, and they provide counseling and help with job placement. But job placement is the tough part — most employers are reluctant to hire ex-offenders fresh out of prison. The CEO model is different because it provides a direct pipeline to work; it gives, within days of release, the formerly incarcerated a chance to build a foundation for a new life.

A proposal has been floated to establish two or three crews of ex-offenders — five to seven in each crew — to work in the Baltimore parks department, under CEO’s supervision, with funding from foundations. During the course of a year, between 150 and 200 people could transition through the program to private-sector employment. That would be significant for the city.

Nothing formal has been arranged yet. But Will Heaton, a spokesman for CEO in New York, confirmed that Baltimore is in the organization’s sights.

“A core part of our strategic plan is to explore opportunities for continued expansion given the significant need for re-entry services across this country,” Heaton wrote in an email. “CEO has been exploring an opportunity to launch a program in Baltimore and we remain interested. …

“All of the conversations we have had to date have been preliminary and exploratory as we continue to see how we might best serve the community.”

Brice Freeman, spokesman for the Mayor’s Office of Employment Development, says Mayor Catherine Pugh is considering CEO. If foundations agree to fund the first year or two, what’s not to like? There’s plenty of trash in this city to pick up, plenty of trees to plant. And a dire need to break the prison-into-crime-into-prison cycle.

drodricks@baltsun.com

twitter.com/DanRodricks

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