After another week of shootings and killings, this seems like a good time to say it again: Baltimore needs to not only suppress violence with smart police work, it needs to intervene to stop violence from erupting in the first place. And the city needs to be consistent about that approach, over years and multiple mayors.
Unfortunately, just the opposite has happened. Good intervention efforts have fallen by the wayside. One involved direct, face-to-face warnings to repeat violent offenders. Sheila Dixon was mayor at the time, and Leonard Hamm police commissioner. Officials summoned offenders on parole or probation to police districts, where they were admonished to be good or face federal prosecution and possible incarceration in far-off prisons. The felon call-in program, carried out with the help of then-U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein, continued after Fred Bealefeld succeeded Hamm. The program was inexpensive and effective. During its run, between 2006 and 2012, murders dropped by 30 percent, shootings by 40 percent and adult arrests by 43 percent.
But the program went away. A couple of years later, under another mayor and another police commissioner, there was an attempt to bring something like it back, but that effort fell apart.
When Martin O’Malley was mayor and Peter Beilenson health commissioner, both men wanted to do something about homicides of juveniles. There were 32 of them in 2002. By 2005, there was only one. Why? Beilenson created a program to track at-risk kids and provide them with the services they needed to stay out of trouble. Again, a good program. But a good program gone.
Safe Streets, on the other hand, has survived a few mayors. The violence-interrupter program employs ex-offenders to keep disputes from becoming deadly. It finally seems to be getting the support it deserved. The Pugh administration plans to have it working at 10 sites by the end of the year.
The newest program in town is Roca Baltimore. It went into operation last summer, focused on the hardest cases in West Baltimore and East Baltimore, dozens of teenage boys and young men considered dangerous. They might be on probation, possibly on gun charges; many are considered likely to be arrested again, or likely to be shot, or likely to shoot. Roca’s staff has names, numbers and addresses and sets out to find them, gain their confidence and offer them classes in life skills, therapy and transitional employment. It doesn’t always work. Two of the young men were murdered before Roca had a chance to intervene. Some of the boys and young men could not be found. Many are just hard to reach, and it’s understandable. Growing up in poor and violent neighborhoods, they’ve been traumatized and hardened.
One of the biggest challenges: Getting them to control their anger. “They need to learn to pause and sort through things,” says Molly Baldwin, the Baltimore native who runs the Massachusetts-based Roca. And that pause might be the difference between life and death on the street.
It’s going to take time to turn more of these young men away from guns, gangs and drug crews and see a positive effect in Baltimore’s crime rate. “But they are tired,” Baldwin says. “They’re scared and tired. I mean, who wants to live like that every day? So we’re going to stay at it, and show them there’s another way, and be hopeful.”
Roca has funding for four years. Good.
“We’re racing the clock,” Baldwin says. It’s a race to keep young men alive long enough so they can move into a better lane.
Intervening in troubled lives takes time, money and sweat. It needs to be steadfastly maintained over years to be effective.
The state could play a big role in it. The Maryland prison system could become far more focused on the rehabilitation of offenders so that when they are released they are transformed and not prone to commit more crimes. That would be intervention at the institutional level.
Consider what the police tell us about the people who have been killed in Baltimore’s streets. From year to year, most of the victims have been men between the ages of 25 and 39, with increasing numbers in their 40s and 50s. Last year, 259 of the 309 Baltimore homicide victims had records. For varying lengths of time, most were probably incarcerated. That they came home, and ended up dead, suggests that they put themselves at risk, by returning to old habits among old associates, probably in the same old neighborhoods.
Prisons are for punishment and public safety; that’s understood. But it’s a waste of taxpayer money to not use a man’s years of imprisonment in a way that prepares him for a decent life outside the walls. Maryland has made progress in slowing the revolving door between prison and the street. Still, the whole system needs to be overhauled, so that the goal, between intake and the bus ride home from Hagerstown, is transformation.