After lure of the street, a return to honest life

On the morning of Sept. 5, 2000, Baltimore police conducted what drug dealers call "a house raid" on 43rd Street in a North Baltimore neighborhood that had been beleaguered by gang activity for several months. Police arrested four people and listed these confiscated items for a Sun reporter: 160 vials of cocaine; 19 ounces of pure heroin; 6 ounces of pure cocaine; $8,000 in cash; and a .22-caliber Intertec machine pistol with a silencer. Police placed the value of the heroin at $285,000, the cocaine at $20,000.

It was a good day's work for the Northern District's Distressed Neighborhood Team - and the end of a run for Michael Stevens.

Stevens, who I met the other night, identifies that 2000 house raid as his one and only arrest after 14 years of dealing drugs, off and on, in Baltimore. When the police finally caught up with him, he was in the wheelhouse of his drug-dealing career.

He was 34 at the time.

He's 40 now, and doing well in straight time. He has a job. He doesn't sell dope anymore. The other night, he was one of the honored graduates of the Maryland Re-Entry Partnership, which helps ex-offenders get on track after incarceration. Stevens, soft-spoken and a little nervous, got emotional when he addressed the dinner gathering. It seemed to hit him all at once - that he'd been given a second chance, that his friends, family and case workers had supported him in a transition to an honest life. He's not making the money he once did, but, he said, he doesn't worry about being shot or arrested.

I've heard this story so many times - and often from men in their 30s and 40s, some in their 50s. One of the REP graduates the other night was 60 years old.

If only we could have changed these hearts and minds when they were 20.

Big difference between the Baltimore of today and what I call the Pre-Heroin Baltimore of the 1950s and 1960s: A young man like Michael Stevens can no longer support a family with a solid, blue-collar job at a plant or mill. Thousands of manufacturing jobs have disappeared since Post-World War II/Pre-Heroin Baltimore. This was a seismic change, and we're still experiencing the aftershocks. With those jobs went good wages and benefits, union pensions, family stability and a relatively straight road to the American middle class.

I'm not making an excuse for drug dealing and criminality. There's just no mystery in why many men of Baltimore's heroin generation - unskilled guys with limited education - saw the heroin hustle as a fast way out of poverty.

And if they got killed or arrested? That was just part of the game.

I asked Stevens if, looking back, he feels he wasted a good chunk of his life to the drug game.

"Not wasted," he said, taken aback by the question.

He said he only got into the game out of necessity.

No excuse. Just math.

Stevens once held two legitimate full-time jobs - for a private security outfit in Woodlawn, and for a department store in Towson - that paid minimum wage. He says his combined take-home from those two jobs was only about $300 a week. "And they were both eight-hour-a-day jobs," he said.

Stevens could do better selling drugs, so he did, all through his 20s and into his early 30s.

And he got away with it for years.

"You had to be smart and pay attention to the street," Stevens says. "You had to pay attention to the police, constantly. That comes with the game."

So does the threat of death, but Stevens somehow beat the odds. He didn't exactly serve a long time in prison, either - just 3 1/2 years for his guilty plea on the 2000 drug charges - and Stevens said his experience behind the walls "wasn't all that bad."

But his age seems to be what got him motivated to get out of jail and not return.

Plus, he says, the rules of the street have changed. Basically, there are none.

"In the time I was on the street, things were more organized," he says. "You can't trust nobody no more, and the police have [surveillance] cameras and they're tougher and lock people up just for sitting outside. The young guys on the street have no respect, and there's more robberies."

Stevens earned release in 2003 and struggled, as most felons do, in the hunt for a job. That's another part of the problem here - few family-supporting jobs at the front end, even fewer opportunities at the back, when offenders emerge from prison.

"It's hard out here," Stevens said, referring to the difficulty men and women with criminal records have in landing employment.

Stevens hooked up with Maryland REP and STRIVE Baltimore. Those organizations are among the few offering services to the city's large ex-offender population. Stevens has a job working for the city's Department of Public Works. He's talking about starting his own business - as two of his fellow REP graduates already have.

Seventeen out of the graduating class of 20 have found jobs since getting out of prison. Seven have found their own residences. Two have gained sole custody of their children. Five completed drug treatment. Two are engaged and one - the 60-year-old - has married and purchased his own home.

Better late than never.