A fellow named Joseph contacted me the other day. He's one of Baltimore's many drug addicts, still alive at 33, clean for once, and looking for a job. "I started smoking crack at the age of 14, shooting heroin at the age of 16," he says. "I am on parole and probation, and I can't find a job anywhere ... It seems like every time I get an interview, everything is great until they do a background check. I'm going to [violate my parole] soon due to non-payment of the [parole] supervision fees."
Common story. Old story. The crack story.
Guys like Joseph — and I've met, spoken to or corresponded with hundreds of them by now — came of age during the crack epidemic (about 1984 to 1993 in most East Coast cities; it lasted a little longer in Baltimore). During that period, the smokable, fast-acting and highly addictive form of cocaine was cheap and plentiful. The children of the crack era grew up among adults who used the stuff, and some ended up addicted themselves.
The children of crack were usually born into poverty or near-poverty. You can add general family dysfunction to the life story. There was usually no adult male capable of positive influence in the home. These were childhoods marked by poor attendance in school, lots of mindless television watching, little adult supervision and some mischief that rose to juvenile misdemeanors and, in some cases, to the use of drugs and years of addiction.
Certainly, many other children of the crack generation managed to survive; they are in their 20s and 30s today, out in the workforce, trying to achieve what their parents or older siblings never came close to achieving because of crack. (There was an 8-year-old found to be working for drug dealers in West Baltimore in 1988. He was known as "Little Dirt." The state got him into foster care in Carroll County, and that made all the difference. Last I checked, he worked as a truck dispatcher and owned a home in northeast Baltimore.)
But there are guys like Joseph, too, who managed to get away from crack but spent years hustling daily for the heroin that their brain craves.
And then they woke up one day, perhaps at long last clean, and went out to find a job and realized they had compiled quite a resume of criminality. They are among the thousands of the permanently punished from the war on drugs. Someone in a human resources department clicks a mouse and taps a keyboard and, in a few seconds, there it is: a record of charges and pleas, convictions and sentences, all related in one way or another to opiates.
Common story. Old story. It was tough for men and women with criminal records to find jobs prior to the Great Recession. I assume, based on the mail and phone calls I receive almost every week from ex-offenders and their relatives, that it approached impossible during the economic downtown. It's hard to imagine it getting any better any time soon.
This is part of the legacy of the horrible crack epidemic — thousands of Baltimoreans arrested and incarcerated in the 1980s and 1990s (nearly 40,000 drug arrests in 1994 alone), many of them being released, coming home, then violating conditions of probation because they couldn't find work and returned to their old ways. Then, after a few more years in prison, they came out again and stepped into post-recession Baltimore, hoping to find work and a new life, but instead becoming frustrated at the lack of opportunities here. It's a prime reason our adult prisons remain full.
I gave Joseph a list of companies that in the past hired ex-offenders, then I wished him luck.
Looking ahead, there's some hope for a generational break in all this.
In Baltimore, where we had so much addiction and violence associated with the crack epidemic, crime has been in decline. So has crack use, according to records the governments keeps. It might have been passed from parents to children, from siblings to little brothers and sisters. But generally, by most indications, the crack-using population is aging out, and the next generation hasn't picked up the pipe. If that trend continues, maybe in another 10 years we'll see the end of crack's long legacy in Baltimore.
Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM. His email is email@example.com.