High cost of drug sentences in Maryland

I ASKED Donta Ellerbe, a 28-year-old Baltimorean who spent too much of hisyoung life selling heroin in his hometown, what he would like to do for aliving, now that he's sworn off the hustle, and this is what he said: "I'm agood people person. I think I would be good at customer service."

I'm guessing he'd be good at sales and marketing, too.

Now, you have to appreciate the irony in that -- a drug dealer looking fora second career in customer relations.

But it's not an outrageous idea. Here's a young man who seems to have apositive outlook, a bright personality and entrepreneurial spirit, someone whoserved a client base for several years, and lived to tell about it. He wassmart enough to have avoided using the dope he sold to others. When I spoke tohim the other day, his voice was energetic and clear.

And it struck me as a shame he hadn't stepped to a different platform andboarded a different train back in the day -- or that the state of Marylandhadn't helped him find a new life while we had him in our custody for fouryears.

Ellerbe got caught up in the street sales of a controlled dangeroussubstance 10 or 12 years ago, and, with the average annual cost ofincarceration per inmate being $24,000, that choice ended up costing taxpayersof Maryland roughly $100,000 for room and board at our penal institutions.

What a waste of Ellerbe's talents.

What a waste of our money.

Too bad this young man hadn't had or made other choices, from the time hewas a juvenile.

He says he started selling heroin when he was a student at Dunbar HighSchool, and that enterprise continued for years. Twice, when he went away toprison on drug charges, he came out and started selling again.

What did we expect? We took the corrections out of corrections years ago,and we're only now talking about changing the approach so that people likeEllerbe -- nonviolent, low-level drug offenders (dealers, users anduser-dealers) have other choices when they emerge from prison.

After his first couple of stints in Hagerstown and Jessup and with no otherjob and no one really pushing him to change his life, Ellerbe reverted to whathe knew.

Last time he got picked up was winter 2004. The police officer who arrestedhim found $600 cash in his pocket, Ellerbe says, and the woman standing nextto him was holding a small amount of heroin. He got another year in the jailafter pleading guilty to a conspiracy charge. He's been out since March, livesat his mother's house in East Baltimore, and goes out on the job-hunt each daywith his friend, Marquise Hayes.

Ellerbe hasn't been able to land a job yet because he has two felonies onhis record, and he's found that most companies won't hire him because thosecrimes -- drug possession and conspiracy -- occurred within the last sevenyears.

What's keeping him from drifting back to heroin sales? The threat ofincarceration. "If I get three felonies, I know I'm looking at hard time," hesays. "And I can't spend any more time in jail."

Smart young man. He already knows what many in the Maryland court systemknow, and what on Monday came out of a report by the Justice Policy Institutein Washington -- we're still taking a hard line on drug offenders.

Judges in Maryland are sending relatively low-level drug dealers andaddicts to prison at rates comparable to, or higher than, those convicted ofviolent and serious offenses, the Justice Policy Institute concluded.

"In their current form," the report said, "Maryland's sentencing guidelinesrecommend harsher penalties in drug cases than cases involving violentoffenses; make little distinction between major drug dealers and substanceabusers who sell just to feed a habit; and treat behaviors common to addiction-- such as a record of petty crime or probation failures -- more seriouslythan past violent behavior."

In the case of Donta Ellerbe, the threat of hard time might keep him fromreturning to heroin sales. Which is a good thing. I can't dismiss thedeterrent quality of prison time. It's real.

But for how long will that threat keep a jobless guy like Ellerbe fromdrifting back into the hustle? As a nonviolent drug offender with a highschool education, he should have been sentenced into a program to prepare himfor a job years ago.

I've talked to dozens of guys who've done a lot more time than Ellerbe forcomparable CDS crimes, and for violating conditions of probation. Many of themwere user-dealers, and most of them emerged from years of mindlessincarceration and went right back to old habits -- either doing dope orselling it.

But what's the surprise?

If they're not getting what they truly need -- for the addict, intensivetreatment and follow-up counseling; for the dealer, a "diversion" into somenew career -- then we get what we deserve: a 50 percent recidivism rate and apersistent drug problem in the city and suburbs.

Treatment for drug abuse and job-training and re-entry programs forlow-level dealers, like Donta Ellerbe, would be a lot more cost-effective thanthe expensive lock-'em-up we've been paying for. It doesn't make sense.

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