America's 51st state - the state of Incarceration - has a citizenship of about 2.1 million now, making it just about as populated as Nevada or Utah. Incarceration USA had just 500,000 residents in 1980; the war on drugs, more than any other factor, contributed to its striking growth - and continues to fuel its remarkable retention rate. In 2000, nearly 605,000 inmates were released back into the other 50 states. In 2003, that number reached 656,320, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Despite this, Incarceration still boasts more people than the states of Rhode Island and Delaware combined.
Maryland's contribution to the state of Incarceration was, as of last month, 22,446. Add those at Patuxent Institution and those awaiting trial in Baltimore's jails, and the number approaches 27,000. That doesn't include the number sitting in all the county detention centers.
Here in the Free State, the average length of stay in a prison is five years. We release up to 15,000 inmates per year.
More than half of those come back to Baltimore.
More than half of all released inmates go back to prison within three years.
Many of them end up back inside because they either don't want, can't find or don't know how to do jobs in the mainstream working world. Many of them have the motivation and some skills but encounter hard barriers to employment because of their criminal backgrounds - a lot of companies simply won't hire felons, even those whose crimes are limited to nonviolent drug offenses.
This whole system needs to be overhauled and more employers educated on the potential labor pool that moves constantly in and out of Incarceration USA. "For those individuals who are willing to commit and do the hard work that's necessary, our justice system should and can be about rehabilitation," said Jim Smith, who spent 16 years as a Baltimore County judge before becoming the county executive. "For that to happen, there has to be hope and the possibility of a better future. When there are jobs, there are opportunities on which to build a new life. We all have a stake in ensuring there are only ex-offenders, not repeat offenders."
Smith spoke Friday in a downtown hotel at a breakfast honoring five Baltimore-area companies that not only hired ex-offenders but agreed to go public about it, as a way of setting an example to other employers. Honored companies included Dennis Marketing Group of Owings Mills, Primo Electric of Anne Arundel County and Second Chance of Baltimore. Here's a brief look at the other two: