Give Steele credit for speaking up for ex-cons

October 30, 2005|By DAN RODRICKS

I haven't heard any of the allegedly liberal Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate mention it, but the leading Republican candidate did - and on the first day of his campaign. Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele visited one of the I Can't We Can residential drug-treatment centers ("Change you must, or die you will") in Baltimore, then went to lunch and challenged a group of business owners to give ex-offenders a chance by putting them to work.

Amazing. A public official in Maryland asked business people to consider hiring recovering drug addicts as a way of breaking the costly and depressing cycle of crime-incarceration-unemployment-crime.

"I want to talk about the two rooms I visited - the I Can't We Can environment and the small business environment, and I want to build a bridge between the two," Steele said.

Steele said he knows that when ex-offenders fill out job applications, the hardest question is the one that asks, "Have you ever been convicted of a felony?" People will spend five minutes staring at that question, he said, trying to decide what to do. If they check yes, their application goes in the trash; if they answer no, they might get the job but live in fear that someone will discover the truth.

"We have to understand why they pause on that box," Steele said, "and we've got to address that on the front end so they get the education while still in prison ... so they can come to you with that application with the confidence that it won't get kicked to the curb because they checked that box."

Give ex-offenders a chance, said Michael Steele, so that they can one day "take off the blue jeans and T-shirt, and put on a suit and tie and talk about business."

Steele's challenge went to about two dozen black business owners at Symone's, a soul food cafe on Liberty Road in Randallstown. It will be interesting to see if Steele takes the same challenge to, say, the Center Club or the Howard County Chamber of Commerce, maybe even the Republican National Committee.

Sick of the cycle

A judge in Baltimore County last week instructed parties in a case to draft a petition for "constructive civil contempt" against the state of Maryland for failing to provide enough long-term residential treatment slots for defendants addicted to drugs.

I like the term "constructive civil contempt." It's kind of how I feel these days.

I feel "constructive" when I suggest that the Ehrlich administration ought to spend more taxpayer dollars on drug treatment rather than the mindless incarceration of inmates.

I think I've been "civil" in my approach.

And I would say "contempt" is close to what I feel for a system as broken as ours.

We tried to arrest our way out of the heroin-and-cocaine epidemic for more than 20 years. We filled the old prisons, built new prisons and filled those. We took correction out of corrections, warehoused inmates and only recognized the need for public funding of drug treatment in recent years. We sent thousands upon thousands of men and women home from prison vulnerable to relapse and unprepared for straight time. We continue to make it difficult for even nonviolent offenders to find jobs, and we have a recidivism rate of more than 50 percent.

Any citizen - Republican or Democrat or Green - should see the need for a major repair here.

Of course, as a legal term, "constructive civil contempt" carries a different meaning.

In the Baltimore County case, it means the government of America's fourth-wealthiest state is obstructing, even defeating, the administration of justice by being too stingy with funds and forcing the courts to keep in jail men and women who state law says should be in drug treatment.

The defendant in the case, 25-year-old Andrew Schmale, has been eating and sleeping in the Baltimore County Detention Center since flowers bloomed in spring. District Court Judge Nancy Cohen had him evaluated, and the evaluation showed that Schmale had a serious problem with heroin and cocaine. Cohen sentenced him to serve out the remainder of an 18-month sentence for burglary in drug treatment.

Treatment rather than jail - not just a concept, but the law.

Still, Schmale's sentence will probably be up before he ever gets into long-term therapy.

The funding isn't there, and the wait for a bed can be more than a year. Judges are sick of it. Law-abiding, taxpaying Marylanders should be sick of it, too.

Sick of the cycle. Sick of drug addicts breaking into their cars and homes, shoplifting in their stores, prostituting themselves and neglecting their children. Sick of paying $25,000 annually to house inmates, only to have half of them return to prison within three years of release.

What we need is drug treatment on demand. We need to change profoundly the culture of corrections and make it, from start to finish, comprehensively rehabilitative. We need public leadership (like Michael Steele's) on the cause of the ex-offender, and a sustained effort to build better communities by breaking the drug-fueled cycle of crime-incarceration-unemployment-crime. It's one of the great and exciting challenges in our midst. Someone who wants to be senator or governor ought to run with it.

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