Roc' Dutton's gloom need not prevail

Keep hope alive: Operation Safe Neighborhod works, the prospects of young black males will improve.

April 18, 2000

THE ESTIMABLE ACTOR, director and ex-con Charles S. "Roc" Dutton offers a grim -- yet not inevitable -- view of the future.

In a recent interview with The Sun, Mr. Dutton, who directed the powerful HBO mini-series "The Corner," said: "The prison is being planned for the 17-year-old black kid who's not even born yet. There's a cell being planned for him. That's an industry now."

Probably true. Maryland, for example, is completing a maximum security wing in Cumberland. It's a 512-bed fortress to house many of the state's most violent offenders -- a frightening number of whom are currently in inadequate dormitories at the state's 7,000-bed Jessup complex.

More space will be needed if the prison population keeps climbing. But corrections experts and public officials have been saying for some time that this nation cannot build its way to safe streets. A more promising approach has come to Baltimore via David M. Kennedy, the Harvard criminologist, who says the current criminal justice system merely "processes" young offenders -- never counsels them, never tries to find a shred of personal or community concern that might support a different approach to life.

Based on successes in Boston and other cities, he proposes -- and much of law enforcement has embraced -- an approach in which young criminals are asked to join a safe-neighborhoods program. A surprising number are agreeing.

Churches, social service agencies, prosecutors, probation officers and police are asked to join as well. During what are labeled "call-ins," the offenders are told that the neighborhood where they hang out will no longer tolerate violence. Those who violate the new order are promised long prison sentences such as have been meted out recently here and are cited during the call-ins.

An even more hefty motivation comes from fear.

Mr. Kennedy says many of the 17-year-olds poised for adult careers in crime are terrified of being crippled or killed. He and community leaders report that even the apparently indiscriminate gun users agree during the call-ins that the killing must stop. The offenders, brought in at the invitation of the probation and parole office, are also promised help with education, drug treatment, job and skills training and other services.

"Roc" Dutton found his way out of street life in prison through reading and theater. His story offers hope and might even argue against his own grim forecast about the unborn 17-year-old.

Society cannot wait for widespread epiphany in the criminal class. So Mr. Kennedy's program, offering a wider range of opportunities -- outside of prison -- could find undetected Duttons in many parts of the city. A handful of successes might lead to development of a critical path toward a more promising life. The opportunity is coming to Baltimore neighborhood by neighborhood. The new life that opened for Mr. Dutton -- whose crime was murder, after all -- might be a possibility for others.

If Safe Neighborhoods doesn't work -- if something better than "processing" doesn't prove out, then Mr. Dutton's forecast could well be accurate.

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