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Baltimore crime crisis: How about trying something that worked before?

Crime scene tape stretches across Christian Street at the scene of bloodshed following a shooting at a Southwest Baltimore corner store.
Crime scene tape stretches across Christian Street at the scene of bloodshed following a shooting at a Southwest Baltimore corner store.(Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

You get a pastor to open a church on a weeknight. You have parole and probation agents identify 20 people they worry about — those who are unemployed or underemployed and who previously were incarcerated for robbery, assault or any crime involving a gun — and order them to the church.

You get the U.S. attorney for Maryland and one of his assistants; the Baltimore state’s attorney and one of her assistants; the police commissioner and one of his commanders; the Maryland attorney general and one of his deputies; the mayor, someone from the office of employment development, and five experienced social workers on loan from each of the surrounding counties.

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You bring them all into the church to face the 20 parolees or probationers and, over the next hour, these officials lay down the law: “If you get caught carrying a gun in Baltimore, because you are a felon you will go back to prison. If you commit another crime of violence — a carjacking, for instance — you will be prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney and go to a federal prison.”

You hand out a list of crimes and their penalties. You provide a few examples, with mugshots, of Baltimore felons now doing time in prisons far from home. You present reality in the harshest terms: Those assembled face life in prison or death in the streets.

You do this every other week, with different groups, all year.

Ex-offenders in their 20s or 30s are potential re-offenders. They need to be told about the penalties. They also need to be encouraged to build a new life, and to take advantage of the help being offered in the church.

As Baltimore ends another year of insane violence, with a triple killing on 43rd Street and a depressing per capita homicide rate overall, I have to offer something, and the idea here is intervention. I’m an intervention advocate.

Intervention — the realm of psychologists, social workers, teachers, vocational counselors and peers — is what’s most needed to keep kids from committing more crimes. Intervention in the lives of adults is essential to putting corrections back into our broken correctional system. My take this past year on a frequently arrested man named David Warren was to ask why someone did not try to change the course of his life when there were numerous opportunities to do so.

Now, the kind of intervention I described for those on parole or probation is not new, and it’s not my idea. But it was tried in Baltimore before and it worked. It had some persuasive effect on violent offenders who might have offended again had they not heard about punishment directly from those who could deliver it.

The last time this type of effort had the coordinated support of state, city and federal partners was the last time Baltimore’s annual death toll from homicides was under 200. The program, launched when Rod Rosenstein was U.S. Attorney for Maryland, was most effective from 2006 to 2012. Murders dropped by 30 percent, shootings by 40 percent and adult arrests by 43 percent. Homicides hit a three-decade low of 197 in 2011. The only extra cost for the program was a federal grant for the salary of an ex-offender who served as a mentor for those who participated.

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We have the interventionist approach in place in certain areas of the city. Safe Streets does good work, resolving conflicts. Roca focuses on getting young offenders on a better track. But we do not have the kind of go-to-meeting, come-to-Jesus confrontation I described above taking place on a regular basis and on the scale that is needed.

I put it out here again because, as a citizen of Baltimore, I have to offer something. The year that just ended, measured by the number of people who were shot and killed, was horrible. Things got worse, not better. But we can’t give up. This is our city. We have homes and businesses and Lamar Jackson here. We can’t all just move to Hickory.

The next election for mayor and City Council takes place on April 28. It is the most important municipal election in nearly 50 years. Let’s not settle for weak or suspect leadership this time. If we think the election won’t matter, or that there’s no hope to end the violence and move toward a relatively peaceful and progressive city, the crisis will continue.

We have to pull out of this tailspin. Electing a Type-A mayoral candidate who sees victory in April’s Democratic primary for what it is — essentially her or his first day in office — will send a signal that the days of low expectations and failure could be behind us.

Stemming violent crime must be the next mayor’s top priority.

And candidates need to describe their ideas.

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I have already written a couple of columns on candidates Thiru Vignarajah and T.J. Smith. I will get to others soon. I’m told City Council President Brandon Scott will release his plan on crime on Thursday.

A “call-in” program, as I’ve described it, is not the single answer to the crisis. Baltimore police obviously need to arrest more of the people doing the shooting and killing across the city, and prosecutors, starting with the state’s attorney, need to make clear that convictions and harsh sentences are what violent criminals face.

But that is not clear right now. The Baltimore Police Department’s clearance rate on homicides is dismal, and the state’s attorney generates more attention for announcing exonerations and telling us about allegedly untrustworthy cops than she does for bringing major criminal cases.

In 2020, the message needs to change: If the city can’t close a case against a violent suspect, the feds will, or the Maryland attorney general will, with an enhanced staff of prosecutors in the offing. And the consequences will be severe.

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Making that clear to the public is important, but not half as important as making it clear to ex-offenders one trigger-squeeze away from their old, bad ways.

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