Carlis Benton

Ex-offender Carlis Benton cuts onions while Haleem McClain lights the stove during training at the Episcopal Community Services of Maryland's CUPs Coffeehouse & Kitchen job training program. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun / May 15, 2014)

When Democrat Douglas F. Gansler stopped by a Baltimore sports bar recently, the ex-convict behind the bar struck up a conversation. It's a tough road, the worker told Gansler, to get any job.

"I'm trying to turn my life around," he said. "I've got a newborn son." Gansler nodded emphatically, and dove into the wonky details of a seemingly unconventional plank in a former prosecutor's platform for governor.

Gansler, like all the Democrats vying for the state's top political job, has a detailed plan to ensure ex-offenders do not go back to prison.

The issue resonates in heavily Democratic Baltimore.

As public perception shifts about whether the "war on drugs" has succeeded, and as prison populations rise to unprecedented and costly levels, political experts say many candidates across the country have traded a tough-on-crime attitude for a more nurturing approach.

The three Democrats in Maryland's primary race for governor emphasize proposals for programs such as job training to help inmates successfully rejoin their communities. At forums, in policy papers, to community groups and on the campaign trail, each is pushing ideas to reduce recidivism.

"Compared to the candidates four years ago, it's a very different tone," said Jason Perkins-Cohen, executive director at Job Opportunities Task Force, which tries to help ex-offenders get work. "Candidates are sensing the mood has changed."

Nationwide, re-entry has become a bipartisan talking point, though Maryland's Republican candidates for governor have not made helping former inmates a top issue leading up to the June 24 primary.

Del. Ron George, who has unsuccessfully pushed bills to expand a federal re-entry program promoting literacy and job skills to all Maryland prisons, tells voters who ask that he would he would get that done.

"You go to the issues in the primary that people are asking about. It's something that my friends in the African-American community ask about."

None of the other Republicans publicizes re-entry plans in campaign literature. When contacted by The Baltimore Sun, both businessman Larry Hogan and Harford County Commissioner David R. Craig said state prisons are mismanaged and criticized the administration of Gov. Martin O'Malley for a corruption scandal at the Baltimore City Detention Center. Charles Lollar did not respond to email or a phone call.

The Democratic candidates frequently make their pitches in vote-rich Baltimore, which has no local candidate in the governor's race and where about half of the inmates released each year return. More than 6,000 former inmates return to the city annually.

In the past four Democratic primary contests, the city delivered the third- or fourth-highest number of votes in the state.

"It's about time they did this," said Matthew Crenson, political science professor emeritus at the Johns Hopkins University. "The Baltimore metropolitan area is a political free-fire zone because it has no favored son or daughter."

Although felons can't vote in Maryland until they have completed their probation and parole, advocates say that the economic and social effects of incarceration and re-incarceration reverberate through affected communities.

"There are quite a lot of voters who have family members that are in this cycle, and this may be the first example of someone running for public office speaking to something that directly affects their lives," said Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary's College.

Keeping people from returning to prison is also a budget issue. Maryland spends, on average, about $38,000 per year per prisoner, analysts say. Though Maryland's recidivism rate is lower that of many states, a full 40 percent of inmates return to prison within three years, according to the state's most recent statistics.

"There's a real human face to recidivism," Gansler said in an interview last week. "When someone comes out of jail, we can say their life is over, or we can give them a chance to succeed."

Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown's entire public safety plan rests on the mission to "improve the safety of our communities by increasing opportunities and supports for Marylanders re-entering society who seek to leave their criminal past behind."

"In the long run, it's good for everybody," Brown said in an interview. "When people have work, they're less likely to commit a crime."

Del. Heather Mizeur, talking last month to a NAACP forum in Baltimore, framed the issue with a question: "When you get out of jail, how do you make sure it's not a revolving door?" she asked the crowd. She drew cheers for her answer: "Re-entry starts at entry. Nobody is beyond redemption."

The candidates pitch plans that would enhance existing programs and train inmates for jobs before they leave prison. Veteran Democratic political strategist Michael Morrill said the issue makes good political sense beyond Baltimore, where progressive Democratic voters want "to elect a candidate who wants to right a wrong."

"We have this issue of moral and economic justice," Morrill said. "There's a groundswell of people who have a concern about this issue."

Just this year, the Baltimore City Council passed a bill to "ban the box" on most job applications, allowing ex-offenders to be considered for work before they have to acknowledge their criminal past. Dueling versions of a bill that would allow nonviolent offenders to eventually "shield" their criminal record from public view passed each chamber of the General Assembly this year with bipartisan support, but died on the final day of the session without a compromise.

The state prison system already has drug treatment programs that extend beyond prison walls, treating more than 2,100 inmates last year, according to state officials. Other programs train inmates to do car repair, roofing, carpentry, and heating and air-conditioning work while still behind bars.

Yet the Democratic candidates for governor are calling for the state to invest more to ensure fewer ex-offenders return to the state's system.

"Re-entry has become part of the conversation now in a way it wasn't five years ago," said Beth Margulies, spokeswoman for Episcopal Community Services of Maryland. The organization's Jericho Reentry Program teaches formerly incarcerated men job skills, how to write resumes and apply a consistent work ethic. As evidence of their success, program officials say less than 2 percent of their graduates go back to prison.

Margulies and Nancy Fenton, acting director of the group, watched ex-offenders hurry through a small East Baltimore kitchen last week, quickly cleaning, chopping and cooking vegetables. The women said they have noticed that the issue of helping former inmates gets more attention from local and national politicians.

"When people come back to their homes, they're pretty much concentrated in a small number of neighborhoods in Baltimore," Fenton said. "They don't have jobs, and many times they don't have a place to live. ... It's a critical issue if you're living in Baltimore City. How are people going to rebuild their lives? How are they going to get the skills?"

Carlis Benton, 35, got out of prison last year after serving a sentence for drug dealing. Last week, he was preparing broccoli, green peppers and cucumbers for a catering service run by Jericho.

"They say they want the crime to be down, so you have to give us something to do," Benton said. "If we have nothing to do but go back to the streets, that's what we're going to do. If it wasn't for this program, I probably would have been one of the ones back on the street corner."

Haleem McClain, 55, of West Baltimore knew how to cook before he entered the Jericho program, but now he's far more marketable. "Now I know how to blend, how to saute and how to blanch," he said.

The candidates' proposals focus mainly on job training and placement. Some offer tax incentives for businesses or call for more inmate hiring on state contracts. But many ex-offenders say there will be little long-term progress unless there is less of a stigma associated with serving prison time.

Twenty years ago, Gregory Hall was a drug dealer. Now he's running his second campaign for state delegate in Prince George's County. He says the treatment he's received shows the Democratic Party still has a long way to go on re-entry issues.

O'Malley rejected Hall's nomination to fill a vacant seat in the House of Delegates, citing Hall's involvement in a 1992 crime in which a middle-school student was killed by crossfire during a gunbattle. Hall was convicted of a gun charge in the incident and served 40 days in jail; evidence showed that the student was hit by a bullet from someone else's weapon.

"There are some things that are very hard to atone for, and the governor believes the murder of a 13-year-old innocent child is one of those," O'Malley's spokeswoman Raquel Guillory said in 2012, as the governor rejected Hall's nomination.

Hall, now a businessman and community activist, says he's fully rehabilitated from his drug-dealing days and should have been given a second chance by the governor.

"What happened to me woke up a lot of people," he said. "It showcased how people really feel about re-entry."

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Highlights of candidates' plans

Douglas Gansler: The attorney general offers a 10-part plan for reentry that includes offering tax breaks to companies that hire ex-offenders and providing a special type of Android tablets to inmates who want to learn a profession while in jail. Gansler suggests a dedicating a high-ranking prison official to reentry, putting state money into transitional housing for inmates and preventing job discrimination against non-violent ex-offenders by "shielding" their convictions on public background checks.

Heather Mizeur: The delegate from Takoma Park proposes awarding $15 million a year in grants to organizations that provide housing, substance abuse programs and job training to ex-offenders. She also calls for automatically erasing some criminal records, including expunging arrests that do not lead to convictions. Mizeur wants to expand "ban the box" policies to private employers across the state, banning them from asking about criminal records on job applications.

Anthony Brown: The lieutenant governor's approach would funnel more state cash into existing programs that counsel offenders as they leave the prison system, and allow offenders to leave prison early by completing a degree while behind bars. Brown's plan, which costs $5.7 million in the first year, also calls for awarding state contracts to companies that promise to hire ex-offenders, and spending $2 million to build "transitional housing" for ex-offenders.