I attended my first felon "call-in" the other night, and came away thinking: Why haven't we been doing this, once a month in every Baltimore police district, for the last 20 years? If you've never heard the term before, don't feel bad. When I asked an officer at the front desk of the Western District where the "call-in" was being held, he didn't seem to know what I was talking about. He directed me to what he called a "community meeting" through doors and down a hall.
But this was like no community meeting I've ever seen.
In the past year, as part of a strategy to crack down on the gun crimes that keep B-town on the most-violent-cities chart, the Baltimore Police Department and the U.S. attorney's office have staged five felon call-ins. Thursday's was the first in the Western District.
At least five men from the Western's current list of "citizens of concern" - felons on parole or probation for violent offenses - were among the 12 or so men invited to the "call-in."
This might not seem like a hard invitation to get in the Western District, but priority goes to those voted most-likely-to-offend-again.
"We ask the local district to identify individuals, who have recently been involved in crimes of violence or drug-trafficking, and in particular to identify persistent violent offenders," says Jason Weinstein, one of the federal prosecutors who orchestrate these events. "We also look at who in the area is on the 'enhanced supervision' docket of the [Maryland Division of Parole and Probation], which involves offenders with the most serious records."
Thursday night, the felons sat at rows of tables in the center of the room. Some of them came with family members.
Three walls of the room were lined with cops, prosecutors, probation agents and several other men and women involved in some way with criminal justice, including the Baltimore police commissioner, Leonard Hamm. They were all there to warn the felons that their next criminal deed would send them far away from West Baltimore for a long time - federal time.
Should any of the felons have been suddenly moved by these warnings, members of the Police Department's "Get Out of the Game" unit were standing by to offer housing, educational and job placement help.
What a concept: Summon repeat offenders to the local police station and tell them what kind of mandatory minimum sentences they face should the police or feds catch them again with so much as a bullet or a vial of cocaine. Shake them. Warn them. Offer them help.
One after another, police officers and prosecutors went to the front of the class to chide the felons, warn them or tell them stories of others who refused to get out of the game.
Weinstein spoke of Solothal "Itchy Man" Thomas, who, at age 30, received a life sentence plus 10 years for carrying out a murder-for-hire in 2001. Itchy Man is at a penitentiary in Colorado; he'll probably die there.
Police Lt. Col. Richard Hite told of a young man named Bailey from East Baltimore; he knew him back in the day, when Bailey was a 9-year-old making tips carrying grocery bags for elderly people. "He was like a little brother to me," Hite said. "I tried to mentor him." But drug dealers sucked Bailey into the life, and the last Hite heard, he was serving "17 federal" as a three-time loser involved in a gun crime.
Andrea Smith, a veteran prosecutor in the U.S. attorney's office, rattled off an impressive set of numbers - the possible sentences, under the federal Project Exile strategy, for simple drug or gun possession for those already on probation or parole.
If any of them are arrested again, Smith told the men, their cases go federal and, once convicted, they would certainly receive long prison terms without parole.
"You got into the game before you knew what the game was," Smith told the men. "You were 13 or 14 ... you got into the game before you knew what the game was, and you can't walk away."
But, Smith said, there is another choice.
"We don't want to prosecute you," she said. "We want you to put the guns down."
Hite warned the men in the room that they were getting too old to be running with drug gangs - they can't make enough money to satisfy younger gangsters, even working 12- and 14-hour days. They're facing pressure from stickup boys, and pressure from cops. "You're aging out," Hite said. "If you're 24 or past, you're aging out."
Time to make plans to retire, he said.
Or face prison. Or face death.
None of the men in the room seemed bored, sleepy or distracted during all this. None had that been-there-done-that-got-the-suspended-sentence look you see on their faces in the local courts. They actually seemed to be paying attention.
Closing argument came from Fred Bealefeld, the deputy police commissioner.
"Why are we here?" he said. "Because the violence is out of control. It's stupid, it's dumb, and we're done. We got to pull out every stop imaginable to get your attention about this violence. ... You might not be fearful about what happens to you - loss of liberty, or death - but we certainly are very concerned about what happens to everyone else. ... You [don't] believe you're going to go to jail. You believe you are immortal, you believe that. But whatever it takes, we're prepared to get you the help or get you out so that no one else in this city gets hurt. ... Look around this room - all these people here to talk to you. In my line of work, that's a clue. This ought to be a clue to you."