Communities United organizer Perry Hopkins at the Unlock the Vote rally in August 2015.
Communities United organizer Perry Hopkins at the Unlock the Vote rally in August 2015. (Neil C. Jones)

For the first time ever here in Maryland, ex-offenders can vote before completing probation and parole. As a result, Wednesday night's Ex-Offender Mayoral Candidate Forum, organized by low-income advocacy group Communities United, was probably the first event of its kind in Baltimore.

However, the forum, which was held at Douglas Memorial Community Church, felt like a missed opportunity. Not because of the approximately 80 ex-offenders in attendance, who brought their most pressing needs before the candidates—but because the candidates seemed to struggle to find real ways to address them all.

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Added to this was the fact that the event was one of at least three happening in the city that same evening, so the candidates were on a tight schedule—racing from one event to the next and likely shortchanging audiences all around town.

The event began with activist DeRay Mckesson, State Sen. Catherine Pugh, Green Party candidate Joshua Harris, Chief of the Criminal Division for the Attorney General Elizabeth Embry, City Councilman Carl Stokes, and businessman David Warnock. About an hour in, Mckesson and Embry left. Then Warnock left and former mayor Sheila Dixon arrived. About two hours in, Harris and Stokes announced they had to leave and Dixon said she had time for two more questions. Fliers said that the event would end at 9 p.m., but it actually ended about an hour earlier.

When Embry announced she was leaving, one man in the audience began yelling, "Don't vote for them! If they leave, don't vote for them!"

When Warnock said he had to leave, he heard from Communities United's Perry Hopkins.

"I need to say something," Hopkins said. "I have heard you talk about adult programs, I've heard you talk about a lot of things—but I haven't heard you talk about ex-felons! That's who's here and that's who has the vote. What are you going to do?"

Many in the audience applauded.

"You want the vote, earn it," he said. "Do something for ex-felons."

"We need to create jobs," Warnock responded. "Jobs, jobs, jobs. Jobs that ex-felons can have."

The conversation, moderated by WEAA radio host Marc Steiner and former Black Panther, journalist, and activist Eddie Conway, was an opportunity for ex-offenders in the audience to weigh in as the hosts passed the mics. It repeatedly came back to basic needs: jobs, resources to help ex-felons successfully establish life outside of prison, and affordable, adequate housing.

One man in the audience told the candidates he had never used any of the resources in Baltimore that are aimed at helping ex-offenders because he did't feel they met the needs of ex-offenders. He said that only an ex-offender can understand an ex-offender. "Give us our power back!" he said.

When Dixon began to speak, listing some of the ways that she helped ex-felons when she was in office, the man interrupted, highlighting Dixon's own troubles with the law by exclaiming, "You're an ex-felon!"

At times, the event seemed to dissolve into chaos. A lot of the ex-offenders, it seemed, just wanted to be heard. Another man said that he was in his fifties and hadn't been able to find work due to things he did in his twenties. He was asked to sit down, and told this wasn't the time to discuss personal problems.

A woman asked what the candidates thought about a program where people battling substance abuse problems could be hired while still working to overcome their addiction and given the means to get clean while they were employed.

"We all believe this is a health matter. Not a criminal matter," responded Stokes.

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The woman continued, "We want to change the face of addiction."

Embry said the scenario that the woman was talking about is "absolutely where we should be."

Warnock also spoke about how important it is to change "the punitive nature of our child support policies." He said that young men come out of prison owing the state money for the care of their children and that can deter them from wanting to get legit jobs.

Harris said he wants to establish a training academy specifically for ex-felons. He said that there is work to be done in Baltimore, but it's being outsourced to places like Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Delaware.

Mckesson talked about the need for more comprehensive adult education to give people the skills to get jobs. He also called for joint management of the MTA and the mayor's office—because public transportation plays such a vital role in employment here in Baltimore.

Stokes said that he wanted "a package of services" that would be available to all ex-felons before they leave prison. He said that things like money and health care benefits would help get them off on the right foot. "We need to stay with our brothers and sisters," he said. "I think that's critical."

All of the candidates supported a $15-per-hour minimum wage.

Pugh got applause when she spoke about the title given to people who have served time in prison.

"I don't think you should be defined by the title of ex-felon," she said. "What we're talking about is how we integrate them into our communities, into our society, into jobs. Let's erase the barrier of ex-felon and make sure that people have access to jobs and opportunity."

By the end of the night, things had settled down a bit. The event ended with seasoned front-runner Dixon and political newcomer Harris onstage alone, taking the last questions from the crowd, which had dwindled down to about a third of the people who were in attendance when it started.

Harris had the final word.

"I ask you to imagine what the city would look like had previous administrations… chosen to invest in the other Baltimore as well as the Inner Harbor."

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