To stem Baltimore crime, invest in jobs

When asked last week whether his plan to reduce violent crime in Baltimore would connect people with critical services, including housing and employment, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan dismissed the idea in the short-term. “Maybe they have an impact longer-term on crime,” he said, “but they have nothing to do whatsoever with immediately taking these criminals off the streets.”

Really, Governor Hogan?

If we want to keep people out of prison and save taxpayers money, the only way to do it effectively is to give residents access to economic opportunities and security. Anything else is just kicking the can down the road. We should know this by now.

In April 2015, the world watched as Baltimore residents took to the streets in response to the death of Freddie Gray. Their public outcry revealed communal anger and frustration at a dynamic that has plagued Baltimore communities for decades: an over-reliance on incarceration and a disinvestment in employment opportunities.

A few months earlier in that same year, the D.C.-based Justice Policy Institute and the Prison Policy Initiative released a report called "The Right Investment? Corrections Spending in Baltimore City," which found that Maryland is spending $288 million a year on incarcerating people from Baltimore. Sandtown-Winchester and Harlem Park have the most people in prison of any neighborhoods in Baltimore; Maryland taxpayers spend $17 million locking up people just from those communities.

Sandtown-Winchester and Harlem Park also have the highest rates of unemployment and lowest rates of educational success and life expectancy in the entire city. Similar dynamics exist in the majority of city neighborhoods, particularly in poor communities of color. These problems have existed and have been ignored for decades; they are complex and require comprehensive thought, collaboration and investment to mitigate.

Maryland is a prosperous state, yet many residents are left behind, particularly in Baltimore City: Almost half of working age adults in Baltimore City are unemployed or looking for work; 20 percent of city adults lack a high school diploma, GED or basic educational skills; and, almost half of city workers have no education past high school — that’s 200,000 city residents over the age of 25.

As state and local leaders begin to address crime in the city, the conversation should pivot to jobs. With only 42 percent of residents in neighborhoods like Sandtown-Winchester working, Baltimore faces an unemployment crisis of epic proportions. What many fail to realize is the deep connection between incarceration and the inability to get a job. Every interaction with the criminal justice system produces the single most significant barrier to employment — a criminal record.

This devastating reality is playing out in Baltimore every day as the city’s residents continue to make up the vast majority of the state’s prison population. How can we truly cultivate a thriving workforce and give past offenders a fighting chance to turn their lives around if a criminal record can effectively render you unemployable?

Over the years, city residents have descended on Annapolis during the legislative session to share their personal experiences with lawmakers of what it’s like to try to obtain employment with the scarlet mark of a record. People want to work. They have served their time and want to build a better life and provide for their families, but doors are repeatedly slammed in their faces. After a while, they are forced to make tough decisions to survive, and their options are not always legal. They then end up back in the very system that was the cause and consequence of their poverty.

The state should focus on employment over incarceration. This should include investment in adult education and skills training; pre-trial services for individuals not deemed a public safety or flight risk; reform of punitive child support enforcement laws that fail to differentiate between the “dead-beat parent” and the “dead-broke parent;” and comprehensive reform that expands expungement for certain dated misdemeanor and felony convictions and allows for the automatic expungement of non-convictions.

As we gear up for the 2018 legislative session in Annapolis, the Job Opportunities Task Force looks forward to working with the administration and the Baltimore City delegation in Annapolis on policies that seek to eliminate barriers to education and employment for Maryland workers as a well-established intervention to criminal activity. If we are serious about addressing the crime here, we have to be just as serious about investments in communities that are over-policed and underserved. Right now.

Caryn York (caryn@jotf.org) is executive director of the Job Opportunities Task Force.

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