Aiding ex-convicts

SATURDAY MAILBOX

October 12, 2002

The Sun's editorial "A flood tide of ex-offenders" (Sept. 29) was precisely on target in highlighting the need for transitional services for the approximately 8,000 newly released inmates who return to Baltimore every year.

These individuals are extremely needy. Most of them come from communities and families mired in poverty and have no one to help them out of the mess they've gotten themselves into.

An estimated 80 percent of these people have experimented with drugs and alcohol, and 60 percent are addicted. They are in dire need of health care, decent housing, job training, jobs, substance abuse treatment, family counseling and mentoring.

For more than five years, Marion Sjodin of the Baltimore City Health Department's Office of Primary Care has been advocating for such transitional services, because they have been proved to reduce recidivism. Without such help, it is easy for ex-offenders to return to their old environments and nefarious ways.

However, the editorial does not tell the whole story. Here are some points that it left out:

Sixty percent of returning offenders were incarcerated for nonviolent crimes. They are the "good bad guys" who would profit enormously from substance abuse treatment and other transitional services.

Indeed, many of these individuals should never have been imprisoned at all. Incarceration does not "correct"; it is a drastic measure that should be reserved for truly dangerous criminals who pose a threat to public safety.

Prisons are, in fact, crime schools -- inmates can come out knowing more criminal techniques than when they went in. So keeping certain offenders out of prison can do more to ensure public safety than locking them up.

Incarceration wreaks havoc on families; it means alienation, inadequate parenting, loss of financial resources, depression and anxiety, and it sets a bad precedent for the children. It deprives the community of wage-earners and imparts a message of hopelessness to the youth.

Thus many times, in many ways incarceration does more harm than good.

The Maryland Division of Correction estimates that the average prisoner has two school-age children. This means that there are almost 15,000 children of inmates in the Baltimore City Public Schools. And that figure does not include children of former inmates. All of these children are at four times greater risk than other children of becoming inmates themselves.

If Baltimore wishes to avoid becoming a criminal manufacturing plant, we need to do more for these children. Family counseling, extra tutoring and more mental health services would be a good place to start.

This is not to deny that many heinous criminals belong in prison. But it is disheartening to read that some of the worst go free, while others go to jail for relatively minor, nonviolent offenses, to the detriment of their families as well as themselves and the rest of the community.

It really is time for the criminal justice system to get its act together.

The Division of Correction needs much more funding for social workers and transitional services. We also need to consider that it costs the state $24,000 per inmate per year. Some of this money would be far better spent on transitional services.

The result would be a significantly safer community.

Martin O'Malley

Baltimore

The writer is mayor of Baltimore.

Thanks for describing the quandary we face in addressing the needs of offenders.

Tough sentencing guidelines speak forcefully about what the public intends for law-breakers, including those whose victimless crimes grow out of the disease of addiction. But regardless of the amount of time given to offenders, most of them eventually return to the community.

Our YesNetwork of business mentors provides a way for them to become contributing members of our society.

These mentors volunteer their time to encourage, coach and support offenders in their search for meaningful careers and to help them grow personally and vocationally in the workplace.

Mentors also work with staff specialists to find housing, drug treatment and other services that offenders need to stabilize their lives. For those men and women who have been crooked, these mentors may serve as the only straight influence in their lives.

Clearly the needs of the estimated 8,000 offenders returning to Baltimore's neighborhoods far outstrip the government's capacity to attend to those needs. The YesNetwork uses the untapped potential of businesspeople and senior professionals to help make work the guidepost in the road to rehabilitation.

Government support and coordination is critical to solving this enormous problem.

However, there is no substitute for volunteer initiatives that are woven into the fabric of the community.

Marcus E. Pollock

Baltimore

The writer is executive director of the Advisory Council on Offender Employment Coordination.

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