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Scott’s plan to lower crime would reach into prisons, before it’s too late | COMMENTARY

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott, at a news conference with Police Commissioner Michael Harrison, wants to nearly triple the number of violence intervention programs to reduce crime across the city.
Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott, at a news conference with Police Commissioner Michael Harrison, wants to nearly triple the number of violence intervention programs to reduce crime across the city. (Kim Hairston/AP)

One of the most promising aspects of Mayor Brandon Scott’s 36-page plan for preventing crime in Baltimore is labeled as an “initiative to come” when it should already be in place. Check that: It should have been in place years ago — when Scott was still in grade school.

It’s simply this: Prepare inmates coming out of prison to return to the city and live a law-abiding life. Get them ready for successful reentry while they’re still locked up. Get them on the right track (a job!) before it’s too late and they end up getting arrested again. What a groundbreaking idea.

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“The Mayor is working on an initiative in partnership with the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services (DPSCS) that would begin working with people behind bars in the months prior to their release,” it says right there, in small italics on page 18. This initiative “will provide training and paid employment for people preparing to transition back into their communities, along with providing wraparound support before and upon their return.”

Let me unpack that.

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For decades, we’ve been sending guys to prison, keeping them there for varying lengths of time (depending on their offenses), providing them with limited occupational training (maybe), some education toward the equivalent of a high school degree, and then releasing them with little reentry support.

When I first started reporting on Maryland’s ex-offenders about 15 years ago, the state’s recidivism rate — that is, the percentage of inmates who return to prison within three years of release — mirrored the nation’s, at about 60%. The rate has fallen since then, but so has the number of arrests in Baltimore, and I believe one is directly related to the other. It’s not like we’ve made some revolutionary effort to put “corrections” back in corrections. There’s still a problem with men (and women) emerging from prison without marketable skills or a solid transition plan that will improve their chances of success.

The result is clear. Most of the people caught up in violent crime in Baltimore, both suspects and shooting victims, have criminal records.

Now, I have to quickly add this: The awareness of the challenges of “returning citizens” has grown greatly in the last decade, and there are several government agencies and nonprofits that work with ex-offenders to help them find jobs, housing, health care, counseling, whatever they need for a smooth adjustment to free society. Even the U.S. Attorney’s Office got into the act a few years ago, gathering and publishing a comprehensive list of ex-offender services available across Maryland.

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But successful transitions are still too hard.

I became convinced years ago that the whole prison system needed to change, and Republican Gov. Bob Ehrlich and his public safety secretary, Mary Ann Saar, agreed. Punishment for crime is the deprivation of freedom, and that should remain a purpose of incarceration. But to really serve society, to make Baltimore and all the other communities in Maryland safer, we need to change lives behind the walls.

There is only so much the mayor of Baltimore can do about that. The state runs the prisons. But if Scott and his staff can get a foot in the door and target Baltimore-bound inmates a year or more before their release dates, it will make a big difference on our streets.

I’ve learned from speaking with hundreds of ex-offenders since 2005 that most of them don’t want the life that sent them to prison, and they respond when they think the offer of help is real.

So I hope the mayor’s staff makes a deal with the state to get inside prisons or transition centers and work with inmates well before they leave.

And, most important of all, is a job upon release, even if it’s raking leaves or picking up trash. Start them in public-sector jobs (funded by taxpayers or foundations) so they’re working and getting a paycheck right away. They could work four days a week and spend the fifth getting guidance in the pursuit of a private sector job. A New York-based organization, the Center for Employment Opportunities, has been doing exactly that and has helped thousands of ex-offenders find work and get on with life.

As I said, we should have been doing this years ago, and I hope the mayor follows through on his “initiative to come.”

There’s a lot more to Scott’s crime prevention plan. It’s holistic and ambitious if mushy on some specifics, and it’s hard to imagine it being immediately effective. But its main, long-term emphasis is on intervention — that is, coordinating the agencies of government (police, health, social services) with influential community leaders to focus on the relatively small group of people responsible for most of the violence that occurs in Baltimore.

A recent report co-authored by David Kennedy, the criminologist who developed and implemented an acclaimed model for group violence intervention, notes that just 10% of people engaged in crime account for 66% of offenses. Those findings have been consistent in study after study for decades.

So, these things have been known for a long time: Ex-offenders fall back into criminality if they don’t make a good transition from prison; they become part of the core group of criminals who cause most of the trouble in Baltimore. Focus on them in a sustained way, intervene to offer them a way out, and we might finally get somewhere.

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