The eight men sat quietly on folding chairs in the basement of a West Baltimore church as police and federal prosecutors delivered a sobering message: We know who you are, and we're prepared to bring everything we've got against you.
At the front of the room were three posters with the word "EXILED" in large black letters, each displaying mug shots of city men sentenced to hard federal time for possession of as little as two grams of powder cocaine - the kinds of charges that don't typically generate such lengthy sentences.
But those featured on the posters had caught the eye of federal prosecutors. And the officials gathered these men at the First Mount Calvary Baptist Church to let them know that they were on their radar as well.
"I've looked at your records, I see the convictions," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael C. Hanlon. "Nobody here is a kingpin or the kind of guy they write books about, but it's enough to punch your ticket to federal court.
"But you have options," Hanlon said.
In contrast to the posters at the front were tables decorated with pink flower centerpieces and blue-and-white plastic tablecloths, ready for the hot meal being prepared by church workers in a nearby kitchen. Seated around those tables were community leaders, along with representatives from job placement groups and drug treatment centers, waiting to offer assistance.
"We're here because we care," said Baltimore police Lt. Col. Glenn Williams, who oversees patrol on the city's west side. "You're in serious trouble, and we want to give you some very, very needed help."
The men invited to Tuesday evening's "call-in," as these events are called, had spent their share of nights in Central Booking, but now they were being handed customized pamphlets listing their personal information, prior crimes - and the likely prison sentences they were facing in the federal system if they slipped up again. Reformed convicts and law enforcement officials pleaded with them to turn their lives around, but also offered services ready to help point them in the right direction.
City officials adopted this approach in the late 1990s from Boston, where it was credited with steep declines in homicides. In Baltimore, the effort was met with mixed reactions and went through several structures and too many names to keep straight. The events fell by the wayside but were revived in the Park Heights area in July 2008, which officials have credited in part with a 45 percent drop in homicides and other shootings in that neighborhood.
Tuesday's event was the first since then, targeting 19 individuals in West Baltimore selected from among the most serious offenders who officials believe still have a chance to change. An outreach worker from Operation Safe Streets spent weeks tracking candidates down. Some were rearrested before he could make contact. Those who attended came voluntarily.
The targets of Tuesday's effort were all black men in their 20s or 30s. This week, the FBI released statistics showing that a black man was about six times as likely to be a homicide victim as a white man, and the most frequent type of homicide in the country involves a young black man being shot to death by another black man who is known to him.
In Baltimore, the statistics are more pronounced. Williams read the city's homicide statistics off of a sheet of paper: 163 homicides as of Tuesday, with 128 victims younger than 34. Eighty-eight percent of the victims have been black, and Williams said the suspect characteristics likely aren't different.
Corey Winfield, who works with Operation Safe Streets as a violence mediator, told the men that he was sentenced to 20 years in prison at age 17. When he got out a few years ago, he didn't know how to use a microwave oven and was startled to hear a voice recording on a city bus. And when he returned to the neighborhood where he hustled, no one remembered him.
"You gotta think, 'I have an opportunity to change,' and do the right thing," Winfield told them. "This is your break."