A flood tide of ex-offenders

September 29, 2002

ON THE STREETS of Baltimore, young men die almost every day in grim battles for respect or turf or revenge. Survivors limp off in chains to a different sort of death in prison.

Then they come back in staggering numbers: 8,000 or more return to the city each year -- 4,400 of them to three neighborhoods. Sandtown-Winchester, Druid Heights and East Baltimore.

They come back to the streets where their crimes were committed. They come back to family if family will have them. They come back to neighborhoods where adequate housing, jobs and health care are hard to come by for people who have not been in prison.

Baltimore has one of the highest concentrations of ex-offenders in the nation. The city's vigorous drug trade produces addiction, death and enough ex-convicts every year to populate a small town.

Only a handful get any support. Two out of three will be arrested again for serious crimes within three years of their release. Half will return to prison.

This wave of ex-offenders washes over the city as the result of public policy: a decade and more of aggressive incarceration for drug offenses. But too little attention has been paid to the result: a flood tide of dangerous men pouring into city neighborhoods. A few promising but scattered programs need to be pulled into a coordinated, adequately financed extension of the corrections system.

Back in their communities, meanwhile, ex-offenders often return to the same destructive paths.

Not surprisingly in a city where an alarming percentage of young men are in prison, on parole or on probation, many of those involved in Baltimore's epidemic of murder -- killer and victim -- have been convicted of crimes. A recent city Health Department survey of 28 shooting victims found that all but two had criminal records.

Just bad guys killing other bad guys, a weary city prosecutor said once. It's a common attitude that undermines the legitimate need for concern about the rehabilitation of returning ex-prisoners: Too often, a police officer or law-abiding citizen is their next victim.

Someone like Rio-Jarell Tatum, a Penn State University student and athlete from Baltimore who was shot to death in May during a robbery. Charged in Mr. Tatum's death is a man whose extensive criminal record includes two prison sentences. Baltimoreans mourned the loss of a promising life and a bit of the city's future.

With this carnage further depressing neighborhood life and inevitably touching more than just bad guys, leaders in several Baltimore communities have started their own re-entry programs, hoping to find the right combination of guidance, drug treatment and community care for the prisoners who come back to their streets. Many of the returnees have simply been "processed" by a system too harried to engage in anything like corrections.

Some of these men are burned out, remorseful and ready to find another way. Some are young and talented. Some are incorrigible and violent. All need attention. Opportunities for reclaiming wasted lives and helping communities are being missed.

The Enterprise Foundation, the Abell Foundation, the Open Societies Institute and other groups have begun to focus on this problem. But, absent comprehensive government action, communities are left to construct their own bulwark against the deadly cycle of drug dealing, using and killing.

The challenges for community groups are daunting: To begin with, when released, many ex-offenders are virtually homeless. About 40 percent -- 2,000 or so -- have no suitable place to live. All of them could find a place, "but not where you'd want them to be," a state prison official said. A desperate search for transitional housing looms as a huge obstacle for the afflicted city neighborhoods.

Other barriers -- financial, logistical and regulatory -- limit access to drug treatment, employment counseling and medical care.

Unless those barriers come down, city neighborhoods will be damaged further. And the threat reaches beyond the city. Richard Antonio Moore, who killed Baltimore County police Sgt. Bruce A. Prothero two years ago, had been released from prison into home detention with an electric monitoring bracelet, which he promptly cut off. Only days later, during a robbery in Baltimore County, Mr. Moore shot and killed Sergeant Prothero, who was moonlighting as a security guard to support his wife and five children.

No amount of constructive assistance may have diverted Mr. Moore, but a systematic approach to the problems of ex-offenders -- an approach that would identify threats as well as ex-offenders with potential -- might save lives.

Locked in a cycle that promises big money but delivers addiction, prison and death, bad guys do kill bad guys.

They also kill good guys like Rio-Jarell Tatum and Bruce Prothero.

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