And so we begin again. With Baltimore beleaguered by crime and violence, I return today to an informal public-service initiative that lived in this space between 10 and 12 years ago.
It began in June 2005 with an open letter to the drug dealers of Baltimore, asking them to consider getting out of that life and offering them some help with the journey.
I gathered information about training and employment programs, apprenticeships, and companies willing to hire ex-offenders. Maybe 20 businesses contacted me to whisper that they were willing to do so, so long as neither their employees nor their customers knew about it.
The response was sudden, surprising and sustained. For two years, hardly a day went by without a phone call or letter from ex-offenders — or their grandmothers, sisters, mothers and girlfriends — seeking employment.
By the time we stopped counting, at least 5,000 men and women had called 410-332-6166 to see what The Baltimore Sun could do for them.
I did not have enough time to follow up and keep records, but I know that several guys found jobs. Several got into training programs to become cooks or auto mechanics. At least two started their own office-cleaning businesses. Some could not stay out of trouble and ended up in prison again.
We made arrangements to refer several men and women to drug treatment. One of them reunited with a high school classmate who gave him a job in commercial real estate. The older heroin addicts expressed fears of being locked up again by police or being shot to death if they fell behind in payments to their dealers. They were eager to get off the street and get into treatment.
I continued to get calls, off and on, for the next few years. I heard from guys on parole or probation who said they were either unemployed or underemployed. The ones between 25 and 50 seemed most earnest about finding work, staying straight and paying their child support. All of them said they had had trouble getting and keeping jobs because of their criminal records. Several told of being hired for a few months, and having their work praised, only to be let go after their background checks came through.
I also received hundreds of letters from inmates in Maryland prisons. Those still behind the walls were looking for information about businesses that might hire them once they got out.
I think total contacts — by phone, email and post — might have reached 7,000 before I pulled away from the project in late 2007.
A decade later, I continue to receive requests for information. On Thursday, a letter from a woman named Hope asked if I knew someone who might hire a fellow she’s trying to help: “Though he has walked a fine line since being home from jail, he is getting discouraged due to getting turned down for jobs or feeling he has to work jobs where they treat people [badly] because they know they cannot just go find another job because of their criminal record.”
So look, here we go again.
There have been too many shootings and killings, and I have to believe that, unless they’re gang members, most guys caught up in the street life would like to get out of it. What they want is a decent job.
That’s not wishful thinking on my part. That’s something I have heard over and over.
The risks are too high in Baltimore; there are too many guns and too many punks willing to use them at the slightest provocation.
So the phone number is the same (410-332-6166), and I check the voice mail every 24 hours. Call if you want help. Be patient. I’ll get back to you.
I’ve made arrangements for referrals to Living Classrooms, the Work First Foundation, Goodwill Industries of the Chesapeake and the Mayor’s Office of Employment Development. They’re going to help us out. They all have programs for ex-offenders. I’ll be telling you more about all of them in this space in the coming weeks and months.
I’m updating my list of companies willing to hire men and women who’ve been incarcerated — as long as their crimes were not violent, not too recent, and did not involve children.
If you own a small or medium-sized business and if you’re willing to take a chance on an ex-offender, please let me know. Or contact Jason Perkins-Cohen, director of the city’s employment development office. He has a pool of people looking for work, and his office can help yours screen for the best candidates.
I don’t know that this will reduce crime in our city. I don’t know for sure that it did last time. But there are men and women who certainly know they’re living a life of high risk if they stay on the street. You know you need to change course before it’s too late.