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Bush comes to the 'hood

The Baltimore Sun

Jason Hines had his question all ready yesterday for President Bush, who came a-callin' to Baltimore and talked to nine members of Jericho, a re-entry program for nonviolent, adult male ex-offenders.

Hines said he had served a year and a half for a theft conviction. His parole and probation officer recommended Jericho, which helps ex-offenders find jobs and housing once they get out of prison. Since the Episcopal Community Services of Maryland runs Jericho, it comes under the category of what's called a "faith-based initiative."

That's what brought Dubya to town; that's why he wanted to talk to Jericho. But there was something else on Hines' mind besides a job, or housing, or faith-based initiatives.

"I asked him about voting rights for felons," Hines, 32, said. "He informed me that that was something that was not going to be done across a broad level. He told us that anyone who's really passionate about their voting rights should write their senator or congressman, explain the circumstances about why they committed the crime and express remorse."

This is the second year for the Jericho program. It was funded from a three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Labor's Prison Reentry Initiative. The second year will be officially completed at the end of February; the third will run from March of this year through February of 2009. Jean Cushman, the executive director of ECSM, said there is money to fund a fourth year.

So perhaps Hines' question should have been: "Mr. President, wouldn't programs like this be easier to fund if the federal government weren't spending billions on the war in Iraq?"

But this was not a day to embarrass Dubya. Hines and other enrollees in the Jericho program said they were impressed with the president. He spoke to them about his own addiction to alcohol. He told them that his favorite food was enchiladas and that he hadn't given much thought to his post-presidential plans.

Then Bush autographed their GED certificates, address books or anything else they had handy. He gave them all official presidential pins, which they sported proudly on their shirt pockets. At the end, according to Jericho staffers who witnessed the scene, the guys in the program wrapped their arms around Bush as if he'd been one of their buddies from around the way and posed with him for snapshots.

You read that right: George W. Bush became a "Homey for a Day."

"I had mixed views about him," Hines said of his feelings for Bush before his visit. "But now I see him as a man just trying to do a job. Heavy lies the head that wears the crown. I was also impressed by his faith."

Pierre Leftfel just did a six-month stretch in Baltimore's city jail for a drug conviction. Leftfel said the president's message about personal uplift struck him the most.

"He said 'Give yourself a chance. Things will work out. When things look like they're bad for you, never give up. They'll get better at the end. Always look to your higher power.'"

Bush's talk about his alcohol addiction hit home for Leftfel, who has been a drug addict for half of his life. Leftfel said he's also sold drugs. There's a theory that says addicts have to hit bottom before they find the fortitude to kick their habits. Leftfel's bottom was when he found himself, at the age of 43, doing yet another stint in jail.

He wanted "to stop coming back to prison, going in and out," Leftfel said. "I'm too old for this right now."

Whether they felt they were too old or just plain tired of making Maryland's jails or prisons a second home, some 365 people have enrolled in the Jericho program, according to ECSM. Of that number, 237 have been placed in jobs.

The recidivism rate for Jericho participants, according to ECSM, is 22 percent, compared with the Baltimore rate of 52 percent. Some 67 employers in the Baltimore area have hired program participants in fields as varied as installing cables, warehouse work, steel manufacturing, construction, trucking, maintenance and hotel and restaurant work.

Jericho's numbers are a drop in the bucket of ex-offenders who need help returning home from prison, if the data provided by ECSM are correct. About 9,000 people are released from Maryland prisons every year. There should be more programs like Jericho, not fewer. There should be much more money allotted to them, not less.

None of the participants in the Jericho program asked Bush how much more money could have been diverted into re-entry programs if we weren't spending money for a war in Iraq, but the president can be certain of one thing:

Someone, somewhere will very soon ask him precisely that question.



Find Greg Kane's column archive at baltimoresun.com/kane

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