A big wind blew through Baltimore and left a mess of brown leaves and trash on the patch of grass in front of the two-story rowhouse that James Featherstone rents, so he was out there Thursday morning, raking it, without grumble, into white plastic grocery bags.
“I’m glad I have a yard to rake,” he said. “I ain’t never thought I’d have one of these.”
He was 17 years old when a judge sent him to prison for life for a murder Featherstone still insists other boys from his old East Baltimore neighborhood committed. Six years ago, a ruling by the Maryland Court of Appeals, known as the Unger ruling, found a serious flaw in the instructions judges had given juries in the pre-1980 trials of Featherstone and dozens of other defendants. Since then, more than 180 of them — average age, 64 — have been released from prison. Featherstone stepped back into freedom in the summer of 2014, when he was 52 years old.
“Thirty-five years, six months and five days,” he says when asked how long he had been away from city sidewalks, patches of grass and wind-blown leaves.
Four years into his new life, Featherstone has found, in stretches of weeks and sometimes months, work as a laborer. But he continues the hunt for a full-time job. He attends monthly meetings of Unger inmates, and he’s started to talk to boys in trouble. “That’s my passion,” he says.
Featherstone has visited teenagers under the supervision of Maryland’s juvenile justice system. His message: Baltimore boys have choices other than selling drugs and slinging guns; they can lead lives of meaning. What they do, and the guys they associate with — those decisions have huge consequences. Getting that through their heads, Featherstone says, is the most important work he could do in his drug-and-gun-infested hometown. He wants to form a nonprofit focused on keeping boys from lives of crime and failure.
“In Baltimore, and in this country,” Featherstone says, “we fight things from the back end instead of jumping in front. We attack things after they happen, not before they start.”
That’s a hard truth about the roots of crime and about the way we’ve run our prisons for decades: Not enough intervention where and when it’s needed. Not enough correction in corrections. Not enough funding and effort devoted to positively influencing the lives of children and young adults who are on a path to crime and failure. Incarceration is about punishment and public safety, but it’s a waste of taxpayer money if inmates emerge without skills and attitudes that keep them from relapsing.
I have been looking closely, through criminal court records, at the life of 26-year-old David Warren. It’s jarring. Warren has been arrested and accused of violent crimes — attempted first-degree murder, armed robbery, assault, illegal possession of a gun — several times since he was a teenager. While there are some convictions on his record, there are several dropped charges and acquittals.
In May 2017, he went on trial for a shooting that occurred a year earlier, over Memorial Day weekend. Police charged him with wounding five people during a cookout in Wilson Park, on the northeast side of the city. Warren faced five counts of attempted murder and 29 other charges.
Kevin Davis, police commissioner at the time, called Warren a “trigger-puller” and “a person of interest in homicides and nonfatal shootings in our city.”
At trial, the prosecution had to rely heavily on the eyewitness account of a 61-year-old woman. A jury acquitted Warren of all charges. At the time, there was an outstanding federal charge against him — “possession of a firearm after a prior felony conviction.” But, in September 2017, prosecutors dropped that charge. Since then, Warren has been arrested at least twice — in Baltimore County on another attempted murder charge, and in the city on another handgun charge.
Maybe Warren’s record represents flaws in police work and prosecution. But what about intervention? At some point in his odyssey through Maryland’s criminal justice system, there must have been opportunity for a course correction.
The $17 million Roca anti-violence program has started its work in Baltimore, reaching out to dozens of young men who are considered the greatest risks of inflicting violence or being the victims of it. That’s something like the kind of intervention the city’s health department had when Martin O’Malley was mayor. During Sheila Dixon’s abbreviated mayoralty, there was a relatively inexpensive program to get violent offenders on parole or probation to stay out of trouble, and it was effective. But it did not survive subsequent mayoralties. And that bit of local history brings to mind something else badly needed in this town — consistency. In the effort to change lives, to achieve a real generational break in crime and failure, there can be no letup. Good luck to Roca. You might want to see if James Featherstone can help.