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Threat of incarceration unlikely to deter Baltimore crime

Carmen Rodriguez, 36, fatally shot Sunday, Dec. 22, 2019, while inside Kim Deli & Grocery, marked the 338th homicide in Baltimore last year.
Carmen Rodriguez, 36, fatally shot Sunday, Dec. 22, 2019, while inside Kim Deli & Grocery, marked the 338th homicide in Baltimore last year. (Phillip Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

In his first column of the new year, Dan Rodricks calls for Baltimore to solve its complex and seemingly intractable violent crime problem by reinstituting “come-to-Jesus confrontations” with ex-offenders who are on parole or probation (“Baltimore crime crisis: How about trying something that worked before?” Jan. 1). The rationale behind this particular intervention seems to be that those on parole or probation need to be reminded of the stiff penalties they face if they re-offend and that somehow that reminder will scare them straight. This might be plausible if ex-offenders were really in the dark about the risks of criminal behavior. That is unlikely given the broad net the criminal legal system casts in Baltimore’s most impoverished communities.

A recent report by the Justice Policy Institute found that Maryland leads the nation in sentencing young people of color to long prison terms. According to the report, there were 2,827 homicide victims in Baltimore between 2007 and 2017, a third of which were between 18 and 24 years old. Ninety-five percent of those victims were African-American. Given the significant number of victims who were previously involved in the criminal legal system, it’s fair to assume that ex-offenders know the risks.

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Mr. Rodricks’ mention of Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby’s progress on reversing wrongful convictions and exposing corrupt officers reads as disingenuous. The dismal clearance rate he cites is at least in part tied to the fact that trust between the Baltimore City Police Department and the communities most affected by violent crime is completely frayed. Ms. Mosby’s work in these areas is essential to repairing that relationship. Reforming Baltimore’s criminal legal system from within and prosecuting violent crimes are not mutually exclusive tasks, in fact they are mutually inclusive.

Instead of relying on threats of prosecution and long sentences, we could treat violence in Baltimore as the public health crisis that it is and support and expand interventions that focus on its underlying causes. There is good work being done on these fronts. Recognizing the long-term impact high levels of trauma has on our city’s young people, the City Council recently passed the Baltimore City Trauma Responsive Care Act which will require city agencies that work with families and youth to deliver services in accordance with trauma-informed best practices. The Kirwan Commission has recommended changes to our public school system that among other things will expand pre-kindergarten and offer access to vocational training in high school. These are reforms worth fighting for.

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Violence in Baltimore does not occur in a vacuum. It is the result of decades of disinvestment, inequality and systemic racial discrimination. It will take years to reverse. Politicians may not reap the political benefits of such investments during their time in office, but they are the right long-term investments for our city. While we must take immediate steps to stop the bleeding, those steps need not be driven solely by the criminal legal system. While Mr. Rodricks notes there are social workers in these scared-straight meetings, those services can and should be made available outside of the criminal legal system. Programs that he mentions like Safe Streets, Roca, and others like the newly established Rebuild, Overcome, and Rise (ROAR) Center at the University of Maryland Baltimore show us another way.

Mr. Rodricks hits the nail on the head about a few key things — we can’t give up. This is our city. We all must offer solutions and work hard to implement them in whatever ways we can. Every Baltimore resident should demand more from our elected leadership, starting now and continuing into this year’s elections for local office. It is reasonable to expect concrete plans from candidates regarding how to reduce violent crime. But allowing candidates to revert to debunked “tough on crime” tropes as the solution to the epidemic Baltimore is the easy way out. We have already tried and failed to incarcerate our way out of this problem.

Lila Meadows, Baltimore

The writer is staff attorney for the University of Maryland Clinical Law Program.

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