Juvenile program loses its funding

Ex-death row inmate has worked for 30 years to help young offenders

January 12, 2004|By Matt Whittaker | Matt Whittaker,SUN STAFF

For more than 30 years, from a cramped out-of-the-way office at 526 St. Paul St., Eddie Harrison has been trying to keep troubled Baltimore teen-agers from heading down the path he once took -- all the way to death row.

Once a convicted murderer facing the electric chair, Harrison turned his life around in prison, was granted a 1970 presidential commutation by Richard Nixon and started a Baltimore mentoring program for juvenile offenders. Quietly, Harrison has since worked with the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services in Baltimore to get thousands of wayward youths "off the corner."

But today he has something else on his mind.

"I'm in the process of packing everything up," he said. "I just lost funding of $1.2 million from the Department of Juvenile Services."

The department decided to no longer fund the work done by Justice Resources, which since 1970 has been helping rehabilitate youths ages 10 to 18 who have been charged with crimes. The youths report to Justice Resources at the order of the court.

The program is being eliminated because of state budget cutbacks.

"Secretary [Kenneth C.] Montague [Jr.] and other secretaries were looking at all our programs and at the best use of tax dollars, and we simply looked at all that and decided not to renew," LaWanda Edwards, a Juvenile Services spokeswoman said of the Justice Resources contract.

But after fighting his way through the legal system, Harrison isn't planning on quitting. He is embarking on a campaign to raise money for Justice Resources from banks, charitable organizations and celebrities, like former Washington Redskins offensive tackle George Starke.

Starke, who runs a similar program in Washington, has known Harrison for 30 years and is planning to help raise funds for Justice Resources.

"I like and support his program," Starke said. "It's not the time to abandon our youth. I think this is not the time to be taking services out of the inner city."

Harrison knows what it's like to grow up in the inner city. He was raised on Fourth Street in Washington by his mother, a Kosher cook at the Hebrew Home for the Aged, while his father lived in North Carolina.

Many of the kids who have come through the doors of Justice Resources -- which Harrison founded after coming to Baltimore in 1970 -- have been black, poor and fatherless like he was. Harrison has influence with some of them because he knows from years of personal experience what can befall children who were raised in those circumstances.

"This whole thing started in 1960 when I was 17," he said. "For a crime that never even happened."

On March 8, 1960, a sunny day with a chill in the air, 17-year-old Harrison walked to the front door of neighborhood loan shark George H. "Cider George" Brown's house in Washington, saying that he planned to pawn an old shotgun. Harrison recounted that he hoped to use the money to help himself and two friends buy enough gas to drive to Maryland to find jobs.

They went with him that day and were supposed to wait in the car while he went to Brown's door, but at some point one got out and startled Brown, who apparently thought he was about to be robbed and slammed the door.

The shotgun, in Harrison's hands, went off and killed Brown through the door. Harrison maintains he doesn't know why the gun was loaded.

He was arrested for the shooting 10 days later -- on his 18th birthday -- and beaten by police into signing a confession that he had tried to rob Brown, he said. He said he didn't read the confession and didn't realize he was literally signing his life away.

"They beat me damn near to death," he said.

But with his statement that the killing -- which no one disputes was an accident -- occurred during an attempted robbery, the prosecution was able to charge him with first-degree murder. He would have to fight his way out of that over the course of a decade.

Harrison now sits in his office wearing crimson suspenders, a silky white shirt with pinstripes and black ostrich-skin shoes. The model of ex-offender reform gives the impression that he is more interested in getting Justice Resources back on track than telling his story .

The decision by the Department of Juvenile Services took him by surprise. "This is like cutting your legs completely off," he said, noting that the announcement puts himself and 47 employees out of work.

"Over the last 30 years, we have made a tremendous impact in the lives of 10,000 children," he said. "We do save lives and generations of children. They don't have a chance unless we intervene."

One of the about 15,000 who have gone through the Justice Resources program is Donald "Doni" M. Glover, who was ordered there by the court in the summer of 1981 when he was 16 and had been charged with grand theft.

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