In order to appropriately address Baltimore’s very significant crime problem, it must be recognized that the majority of those breaking the law represent three diverse groups of individuals: nonviolent offenders struggling with mental illness or substance use disorders; young scofflaws, many of whom are at significant risk for shooting others or being shot themselves; and violent adult criminals, who are often repeat offenders. Each group needs to be dealt with in very different ways.
For the first category, the approach should clearly be treating this population as individuals who have a medical condition that leads to their arrest for actions including public urination, disturbing the peace or even nonviolent property theft. Funds currently used to jail or imprison them must be redirected to mental health and substance use treatment and other pro-social programs, like drug courts, which are far more effective ways to address the needs of these individuals. Not only are these services more likely to be successful, they also have the added benefit of being far more cost-effective than incarceration, which runs over $40,000 per year per inmate. Prison also puts these previously nonviolent offenders at great risk of having to join violent gangs for protection inside the walls.
For the population of youthful offenders, we should bring back the successful Operation Safe Kids (OSK) project from the O’Malley era. This intensive program served youths, ages 12-17, with a history of convictions for gun and/or drug distribution charges, to interrupt the cycle of violence. OSK involved two components: in-depth case management combined with rapid response to any of the young people’s needs (i.e. moving a participant to another school to avoid ongoing confrontations). When this program was at its peak, it served 100 individuals, and a Johns Hopkins study showed a 43% reduction in repeat offenses among these very high-risk adolescents. A necessary add-on to OSK is a program to intervene with the younger siblings of OSK participants, who are at great risk of following their older brothers, but are not yet inevitably progressing toward involvement with criminal activities.
The final group that we need to deal with are those adults who commit serious violent crimes, often repeatedly. These are the individuals who make Baltimore a dangerous city, and they, and their guns, must be kept off the streets. This means that every effort to improve clearance and arrest rates for homicides and other violent acts need to be made by the police to make sure that those who murder or maim are arrested and go to prison. (Of course, to avoid untoward behavior, there needs to be strong community oversight of police activity.) When convicted, It is also imperative that egregiously violent offenders’ sentences reflect the gravity of their crimes, and most should be sentenced to prison until the age of 55. Why that age? Because evidence has shown that the very large majority of all violent criminals usually stop committing violence by that stage of life. Thus, we can avoid the current debate over lengths of sentences, by simply ensuring that dangerous criminals are imprisoned until they are vastly less likely to be violent.
What about genuinely evil sociopaths; would they have to be released at 55? No, because there could be an option for parole boards or judges to add more prison time if necessary to protect the public. And what about the reverse, those who are truly rehabilitated prior to age 55? Their cases can be reviewed by parole boards or judges, as well, to see if early release is indicated — but the decisions are made while the offender is safely behind bars.
By addressing these three very different major categories of crime with approaches specific to each, (redirecting resources from the criminal justice system, toward treatment and positive interventions for the first two; and focusing the criminal justice system on finding and prosecuting the third group) we are much more likely to significantly reduce criminal activity in the city, and to make Baltimore a much safer place to live.
Peter Beilenson (email@example.com) is the former CEO of Evergreen Health and a former Baltimore City Health Commissioner.