Vernon L. Hackett's latest stint at the Howard County Detention Center ended early last month after 54 days awaiting trial on a misdemeanor theft charge that was eventually dropped. The 41-year-old from Baltimore City says he's been in and out of the jail in Jessup five or six times, and in the last 22 years has also done turns in three other county jails and two state prisons — always on charges of theft, drug sale or possession, and probation violations.
This time, he says, it's going to be different.
"My mind frame is all different," Hackett says. "I got a plan. If you don't have a plan, you go back to doing the things you've been doing."
Hackett is one of some 3,400 people released every year from the jail on Waterloo Road, many of whom have no idea what they're going to do next, many of whom will end up back there. The county Department of Corrections is trying to keep more people from returning, and in that pursuit successfully applied for help from a relatively new national effort to help local jails.
The county is one of six jurisdictions chosen from 17 applicants around the country to be included in the "Transition from Jail to Community" program established by the Urban Institute, a nonprofit, and the National Institute of Corrections, an agency within the U.S. Department of Justice. There's no cash grant, but over the next 30 months, consultants from the two organizations will visit the jail and talk with county officials by phone in hopes of fine-tuning the county's efforts.
"We said in our grant application we are open to having experts come in and tell us we need to do things differently," says Jack Kavanagh, director of the Department of Corrections. In particular, he says, he feels the agency needs help screening for inmates who are most likely to commit crimes again and using county resources more effectively to help them get on their feet when they get out of jail.
The phone conference calls with those experts have already started, and this month, four consultants from the two agencies are expected to pay their first visit to the Detention Center, which has room for 470 prisoners at any one time. About 40 percent of the inmates are serving sentences of 18 months or less; the rest are there awaiting trial.
Kavanagh said the county has no statistics on how many inmates return to jail after being released, but he says national figures show about half commit crimes again within three years.
His department already works with an array of local social service agencies to help people being released get mental health counseling, drug treatment, housing, job referrals, classes on job interview skills and even clothes to wear for an interview. Just a few months ago, the county hired the first person ever designated in Howard to orchestrate these efforts — a "Going Home Re-Entry Coordinator."
Kavanagh says the effort can potentially save money, as jailing each person costs about $90 a day. It's also a way to make the county safer.
"It's not just a do-gooder kind of thing," says Kavanagh, who has been with the agency for 10 years, four as director. "It is an important public safety project."
The head of the national program, Jesse Jannetta of the Urban Institute, says the county was chosen in part because the Department of Corrections already is collaborating with many social service agencies.
"You cannot have successful TJC [transition from jail to community] just with the jail system," Jannetta says. "The jail system doesn't have much say with what happens after the person gets out of jail."
Hackett's case is one example. He was arrested July 20 for allegedly stealing a $200 DVD player from a Target store in Columbia, less than three months after he was arrested for allegedly stealing a $749 computer from a Walmart in Glen Burnie. He says he planned to sell both because he was not working and he needed money.
Released on Sept. 12 after the charges in the Columbia case were dropped, he faced what he calls "a big reality. You got to make sure you got a roof over your head, make sure you got a job."
With a criminal record — available to the public online — and with the obligations of reporting to a probation officer once a week, a job can be difficult to find and to hold, especially in this economy, he says.
By most Detention Center inmates' own accounts, a steady job is the key to staying out of jail, says Scot Pullen, the new "Re-Entry Coordinator."
Pullen met Hackett at the jail during one of his presentations for people who were preparing to be released. The six-week-long series includes sessions on community resources, finding work, navigating the parole and probation systems, and good health habits.
Before he was released, the information handed out at the presentations helped Hackett line up a place to stay at the American Rescue Workers shelter in Baltimore. A week after he was released, he checked in with Pullen at the North Laurel-Savage Multiservice Center, where several social service agencies have offices.
That day, Pullen drove him to the city so he could get a birth certificate, which he needed to get a Social Security card, which he needed to replace the driver's license that he lost when he was evicted from an apartment months ago when he was arrested.
Without all the help he has received so far, Hackett says, he's not sure how he would have figured out all the paperwork.
"They can assist you with certain people you might not know about," he says.
He'll need the driver's license to pursue his long-term plan to enroll in a truck driving school in Glen Burnie and get a steady job. For now, he's working part time for his brother's landscaping company in the city.
He returned to the Detention Center last week to meet with Pullen, and conducted an interview in a conference room there. This time — after 22 years going in and out of jail and prison — he hopes never to return as an inmate.
"You just get tired of being in places like this," he says.