Tossing the dice on ex-offenders

It's a challenge, but refusing second chances makes matters worse

March 31, 2011|By Dan Rodricks

Last time I checked, Maryland had about 22,000 inmates in its sprawling prison system from the Eastern Shore to Allegany County. The general trend has been for the prisons to release between 10,000 and 15,000 inmates per year, and about two-thirds of them return to live in Baltimore City ZIP codes. Within three years, more than half of them violate the conditions of their release or commit new crimes — in the city and elsewhere — and return to our prisons.

The number of inmates in Maryland has fallen slightly in recent years. But given the timidity of an entrenched and cynical political class to change the way we do things — the way we prosecute drug offenses, the way we warehouse rather than rehabilitate inmates — there should be little expectation of a significant change in trends or outcomes.

Money might alter the picture; the continued stress on the state budget could force the accelerated release of certain offenders. And there's an attritional factor: The continued decline in violent crime eventually should reduce the inmate population. For the time being, however, it is what it is — an expensive system that succeeds less than half the time.

The payoff for an investment that runs to the tune of $31,000 annually per inmate ought to be greater. We ought to see fewer criminals repeating offenses, declining crime rates, and lower costs for cops, courts and corrections over time. If all we do is what we've been doing for the last 30 years — sending POWs from the War on Drugs to prisons rather than to medical treatment; warehousing inmates instead of training them for the work force; refusing to hire ex-offenders once they are released — then we reap what we sow.

The city of Baltimore has been doing its part for the last decade to change some of these outcomes. When Martin O'Malley was mayor, he established re-entry centers to help ex-offenders find jobs, and the city itself has been employer to adults with criminal records. (So has The Baltimore Sun, in case anyone's wondering.)

A lot of companies, sufficiently persuaded by legal counsel that they could face negligence-in-hiring claims, just say no. Because of post-9/11 security standards, some can't hire ex-offenders even if they wanted to. A lot of small businesses refuse to take the risk; some already have been burned by ex-offenders.

But I've encountered several businesses that are open to hiring adults with criminal records — they just do it quietly so that their other employees and their customers don't know about it. Some employers have gone out of their way to give second chances; they believe that punishment should not extend beyond the walls of prison. I've met managers of a printing company and an apartment group who knew that if they refused to hire ex-offenders they'd have a hard time getting work done; they just accepted the reality of Baltimore and dealt with it.

I bring this up again because of the big whoop over 13 low-level city employees getting caught shooting craps and drinking on the job last week. This "payday" carousing has been front-page news, and this newspaper has made much of the fact that six of the 13 employees have criminal records going back to the 1990s.

One worker had two handgun possession convictions. But all of the other offenses involved drugs — possession and/or distribution — and those have to be among the most common offenses in Baltimore over the last two decades. "Distribution" means you've been selling, but selling doesn't necessarily mean you're a major dealer behind the wheel of an Escalade. It more likely means you've been selling to pay for your food and rent, or to maintain your own habit. Last I checked, drug offenses were not considered crimes of violence.

I'm not making excuses for the behavior — people who shoot craps and drink champagne on city time ought to be fired. There are plenty of others willing to step right in and take the jobs, and a good lot of them are low-skill, under-educated ex-offenders with criminal records similar to those who just got nailed for gambling. They should not be barred from applying for these jobs. Nor should the city and private companies be skewered for trying to give someone a second chance; they should be applauded. If we don't give more ex-offenders an opportunity to become productive citizens, they'll go back to doing things that are potentially a lot worse — and for taxpayers, a lot more expensive — than shooting craps and drinking Remy on the job.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. He hosts Midday, Mondays through Fridays, on WYPR. His e-mail is dan.rodricks@baltsun.com.

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