Take a guy like Eric Brooks, for instance. He's 30 years old and he's been in trouble for - here's a shocker - dealing drugs in Baltimore. Last year, Brooks received a taxpayer-financed trip to a Maryland prison for seven months. He went to the Metropolitan Transition Center, which is the old Maryland Penitentiary, that Frankenstein castle commuters see from the Jones Falls Expressway. Based on what state officials have told me, it cost us about $14,000 to keep Eric Brooks there.

Was this a good thing? Was it money well spent?

Laws must be enforced. Cops have to do their job. Judges have to send criminals to prison.

But it's what the state of Maryland does with guys like Eric Brooks while they're inside that needs attention because whatever we're doing - at roughly $2,000 a month per resident - doesn't work.

Half of the guys who come out of Maryland prisons this year will be back within three.

A lot of them are young and stupid and just go back to their old ways.

But a lot just can't figure out what to do with themselves when they come out. They're not prepared to emerge into the sunlight.

They have no plan, no fresh ideas, no high school diploma. They have poor decision-making skills, limited work experience, tenuous arrangements for housing, and many have a drug addiction that went untreated during incarceration. ("Your addiction has been outside, parked under the viaduct and doing pushups, while you've been in here," I heard a drug-treatment counselor tell inmates the other day in the old penitentiary.)

Take a guy like Eric Brooks, for instance.

He called me for help in finding a job and a place to live. He didn't want to go back to the old neighborhood where he got arrested, and he wanted to stay away from the crowd he'd been running with. Doing so, he's smart enough to know, will only lead him back to B Block at MTC.

So he's staying with his grandmother in an apartment building near Towson.

But the management has told him he can't stay there without paying more rent.

But he doesn't have a job.

So he can't pay more rent.

So he's looking for some kind of transitional housing, hoping to get on a waiting list somewhere, counting on the kindness of a nonprofit to give him a roof for a few months. He is pounding the pavement and burning up telephone minutes to find a restaurant job.

It has taken Brooks more than a week to figure out how to get his Maryland identification card, and he still doesn't have one. (He needs to get a birth certificate first, he says.) He doesn't have transportation.

Brooks sounds earnest about changing his life and staying out of trouble, but it's easy to see a guy like this drifting back to his old habits if things don't fall into place for him.

Brooks needs an advocate or a mentor, someone to guide him to a better path.

Here's a resolution for 2006: We don't yap about a problem without presenting a solution.

Part of the solution for a guy like Eric Brooks could have been the Maryland Reentry Partnership, which has been in place for five years. Founded under the auspices of the Enterprise Foundation and now a part of Catholic Charities, it's an intensive case-management program that hooks inmates up with services they'll need on the outside - housing, health, employment, education, drug treatment - about three months before they're scheduled to come out.

The program is limited, with only 10 case managers serving, for now, only MTC inmates, and only those who either come from or plan to return to five Baltimore ZIP codes: 21213, -15, -16, -17, -18.

Eric Brooks didn't qualify.

Had he, he would have attended a meeting like the one held in MTC the other day.

There were 11 inmates, ranging in age from 19 to mid-40s, seated in a circle of chairs, along with about 25 men and women from a variety of nonprofit agencies who'd come to offer them help.

The REP case workers, ex-offenders themselves, had some interesting advice to share with the inmates as they prepare for release:

"A good support network is absolutely essential. If you don't have one, build one."

"Success on the outside is all about relationships or it ain't about nothin'."

"Jobs just don't happen; they take work. Don't try to find a job on your own - you'll just get discouraged. Get some help."

"When I came out, all I had was the lifelines I had on the street. I didn't have a support network like this."

"You don't know what you don't know, and I mean a lot of little stuff about survival."

The inmates seemed focused on the discussion, listening carefully. Here were people willing to guide them on the outside, to be their advocates and counselors. Maryland REP is a voluntary program, but the inmates would be fools to say no to it.

Maryland REP claims a 70 percent success rate since 2001 - at a cost of only about $3,000 per man. It's a pretty simple concept, now a national model. It should be offered in all Maryland prisons.

The woman who runs REP, Rada Moss, wants to bring REP to prisons in Hagerstown, Jessup and the Eastern Shore. The state has an innovative program called RESTART, aimed at successful offender re-entry, but it's in only two of Maryland's 30 prisons.

Expanding this effort takes commitment and money - and elected officials who are willing to support it. Too many just pay lip service to the concept of rehabilitation over mindless incarceration. Too many worry about being branded soft on criminals, particularly in an election year like 2006.

But there's nothing soft about fixing a costly system that dumps thousands of clueless offenders on the street, setting them up for failure and the public up for more crime.