Home ... to where the jobs aren't

November 26, 2006|By DAN RODRICKS

I hear men who grew up in Baltimore - guys my age, some a little younger, some 20 years younger - talk about homecomings, but not the kind associated with high schools or the military, Thanksgiving or Christmas. The two Marine Corps veterans I spoke with last week used the phrase "I got home" in reference to their release from prison, not active duty.

"I got home in oh-three," Ben Townsend said. He's 48, a former Marine, former drug dealer, formerly homeless man looking for a job.

"Got home in 2002," said Mark Lonesome, 28, former Marine, former drug dealer, also in need of work.

"I came home in 2000," said Phillip Smith, 51, another ex-offender desiring employment, specifically in construction.

Here's what's true about the past few decades in Baltimore: Thousands of men committed crimes, went to prison, came home, went back, came home, went back. They deserved to do time, but the problem was they kept doing time. They never finished school. The street was all they knew.

Many were addicted to drugs or sold drugs. The pace of incarceration of this troubled population went into overdrive during the so-called war on drugs that commenced in the 1980s, escalated in the early 1990s, and continues today.

These men moved into their late 20s, their 30s, 40s and 50s. Since June 2005, hundreds of them have called The Sun for help in finding employment. The vast majority seem earnest and eager.

But their criminal records remain obstacles to good jobs, even a decade or more after their offenses. They take temporary work, or jobs that pay under the table. Some lose jobs because they can't find rides to work. Many become discouraged, relapse into drug abuse and go back to the street.

There is a huge population of men in Baltimore just recognizing the reality of their wasted years. "I see my little boys," said Townsend, who lives with his sister in West Baltimore. "But I don't feel good seeing them because I don't have a job."

Having devoted a decade or two to doing drugs or selling drugs, or both, men like Townsend seem to have opened their eyes in the O'Malley years, a time marked by aggressive policing and a high volume of arrests. They realize they have a choice - go straight, or go straight back to jail or prison. It's a shame they didn't get the message when they were 16, or 18, or 20. Few of the guys who've called here for help have been younger than 21.

(And while I'm on that subject: Alvin Henry, give me a call again, will you? Sorry if you didn't get the employment information I promised. I have no record of your current address, so please call 410-332-6166 and leave it. I'll have the information packet out in tomorrow's mail.)

This will be my last column on this subject for a while.

I leave it with a couple of questions for my fellow Marylanders - wherever you live.

Do we want the largest city in the nation's fourth-wealthiest state to be a thoroughly great city one day?

Do we want Baltimore to be whole and healthy, or do we want to continue to settle for a city that's only half-great, listing mightily to one side from the weight of drug addiction and crime, fatherless households and family dysfunction?

Obviously, the children are the future, and we need to do all that we can to make sure the most vulnerable, the ones with the highest risk factors, become educated, responsible, healthy adults, and not the criminals their fathers, older brothers and uncles became. That is an enormous job - a society through its government, schools, churches and nonprofits doing what parents should have done - and it remains one of our greatest challenges. It is critical that, for the public safety and for the future of Baltimore, Martin O'Malley makes fixing the state's juvenile justice system one of his top three priorities.

But the new governor must also make reforms in the adult system; he has to challenge the culture of corrections.

A knock on Mary Ann Saar, retiring public safety commissioner, is that she made Maryland's prisons more dangerous because she stressed inmate rehabilitation. That is such a bogus charge. Few of the progressive efforts Saar proposed - to put corrections back into corrections - were approved by the General Assembly, with its Democratic majority, while we had a Republican governor. Now Martin O'Malley has a great opportunity to push for smart reforms - more drug treatment, more vocational training - that would give the public a better return on its investment in criminal justice and give more guys coming home from prisons a real shot at going straight for the rest of their lives.

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

Men and women with criminal records can obtain information about re-entry programs and jobs by contacting columnist Dan Rodricks at 410-332-6166 or at dan.rodricks@baltsun.com. Hear Dan Rodricks on Tuesday and Thursday from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. on "The Buzz" on WBAL Radio (1090 AM), and check out the "Man Law" contest on his blog at baltimoresun.com/rodricks

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