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Dan Rodricks: Want fewer repeat violent offenders in Baltimore? Tear down and rebuild the prison system. | COMMENTARY

Scrap metal awaiting recycling from the demolition of the old Baltimore City Jail, which was built in the early 1800s as the Maryland Penitentiary and has been owned by the state since 1991.
Scrap metal awaiting recycling from the demolition of the old Baltimore City Jail, which was built in the early 1800s as the Maryland Penitentiary and has been owned by the state since 1991. (Kenneth K. Lam)

Repeat violent offender. You hear those three words and likely make a common assumption: Some muddle-headed judge gave a criminal defendant a light sentence that allowed him to get out of prison too soon and commit more violence — murder, rape or assault.

Or maybe you assume that an overworked prosecutor negotiated a plea agreement that offered a lenient sentence, with the same result.

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Based on what I’ve heard in this job over the years, some people go back to the parents to lay blame: We wouldn’t have so many repeat violent offenders in their 20s, 30s and 40s had more parents done their jobs from the start.

I think that covers the usual suspects and conventional thinking. When we hear about violent offenders committing more crimes, we blame — fairly or not, informed or not — judges for being too soft, prosecutors for prioritizing expeditious outcomes and parents for their failures “as the twig is bent.”

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No one seems to blame our prison system.

This is no knock on the men and women who run our prisons or work inside them. Those so employed are just doing what the state demands of them under the present (and antiquated) system.

What we need is a completely different one, a system that, from the point of entry, plays a far more therapeutic part in helping violent people find a better path in life.

Convicted offenders spend many years inside our prisons — in Maryland, at a cost of roughly $46,000 annually. Taxpayers should ask what they’re getting for their money, especially when you consider what the Baltimore Police Department reports: Out of 56 people arrested in homicides or nonfatal shootings since mid-August, 29 were repeat violent offenders.

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Those 56 suspects have been linked to 23 homicides and 33 nonfatal shootings, according to BPD spokeswoman Lindsey Eldridge.

That more than half of the suspects already had records for violence should surprise no one. It’s a familiar story in Baltimore. Repeat offenders are the source of a lot of misery; research shows they are responsible for most of the violence that continues to occur as the city struggles to get on a better track. As a result, repeat violent offenders are the targets of an intervention approach at the forefront of Mayor Brandon Scott’s plan to reduce crime, and good thing, too.

But consider this: If more intervention took place inside prison, maybe we wouldn’t need so much of it on the streets. If, during the many years violent offenders spend there, prisons were fully devoted to changing attitudes and behavior, fewer ex-offenders would cause problems when they get out. That’s theoretical, but I’m sticking to it because what we’ve done so far is not working so well.

Don’t get me wrong: Prisons are clearly essential for public safety, and they serve the need to punish those who break laws. The way I see it, in our current system, every judge’s sentence includes time behind bars for the sake of public safety and time for punishment in the form of deprivation of freedom.

But there should be a third factor that gets just as much emphasis. Indeed, it’s a thorough waste of public money to not use the time of incarceration, from start to finish, to better prepare inmates for a successful reentry to freedom.

I sat in a circle of ex-offenders in East Baltimore one morning recently and heard a middle-aged man, fresh from prison, say he had had no idea that he needed a computer or smartphone to apply for a job. The man had been in Maryland prisons for 22 years and had received some vocational training — forklift operation, meat cutting, furniture repairs. There’s just no excuse for such a man, after all that time away, to be uninformed about what’s needed to land a job in 2021.

But I’m not talking about having a better exit program for short-timers. I’m talking about tearing down and rebuilding the whole system from start to finish, putting corrections back in corrections and funding intense and comprehensive therapy at every facility. For this, the state needs to employ more counselors, psychologists, educators and life coaches. It will cost more, but the payoff will be safer streets and more people contributing to society rather than dragging it down.

I’ve written extensively over the years about men and women who come out of prison but have trouble landing jobs because of their criminal records. I’ve spoken to hundreds of them. The majority of them seemed earnest about living a straight life, though confused about how to get there and frustrated in the hunt for a job. Ideally, we should do all that’s possible to keep people who leave prison from coming back for three hots and a cot. Shutting them down as they try to go straight — rejecting them for employment without even giving them a chance — works against society’s best interests. It makes no sense.

But what makes even less sense is a system that does not devote maximum time and money to help men and women set foot on the right path the moment they leave prison.

We have a system that fails too often, essentially the same system we’ve had since the days of the Maryland Penitentiary, now gone and unmourned. So why not try something completely different?

We will still get public safety. We will still exact punishment. But we won’t have as many violent offenders becoming repeat violent offenders.

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