Candidates for Maryland governor seek votes by helping ex-convicts

Hopefuls for governor pitch plans for re-entry

  • Ex-offender Carlis Benton cuts onions while Haleem McClain lights the stove during training at the Episcopal Community Services of Maryland's CUPs Coffeehouse & Kitchen job training program.
Ex-offender Carlis Benton cuts onions while Haleem McClain… (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore…)
May 24, 2014|By Erin Cox and Luke Broadwater, The Baltimore Sun

When Democrat Douglas F. Gansler stopped by a Baltimore sports bar recently, the ex-convict behind the bar struck up a conversation. It's a tough road, the worker told Gansler, to get any job.

"I'm trying to turn my life around," he said. "I've got a newborn son." Gansler nodded emphatically, and dove into the wonky details of a seemingly unconventional plank in a former prosecutor's platform for governor.

Gansler, like all the Democrats vying for the state's top political job, has a detailed plan to ensure ex-offenders do not go back to prison.

The issue resonates in heavily Democratic Baltimore.

As public perception shifts about whether the "war on drugs" has succeeded, and as prison populations rise to unprecedented and costly levels, political experts say many candidates across the country have traded a tough-on-crime attitude for a more nurturing approach.

The three Democrats in Maryland's primary race for governor emphasize proposals for programs such as job training to help inmates successfully rejoin their communities. At forums, in policy papers, to community groups and on the campaign trail, each is pushing ideas to reduce recidivism.

"Compared to the candidates four years ago, it's a very different tone," said Jason Perkins-Cohen, executive director at Job Opportunities Task Force, which tries to help ex-offenders get work. "Candidates are sensing the mood has changed."

Nationwide, re-entry has become a bipartisan talking point, though Maryland's Republican candidates for governor have not made helping former inmates a top issue leading up to the June 24 primary.

Del. Ron George, who has unsuccessfully pushed bills to expand a federal re-entry program promoting literacy and job skills to all Maryland prisons, tells voters who ask that he would he would get that done.

"You go to the issues in the primary that people are asking about. It's something that my friends in the African-American community ask about."

None of the other Republicans publicizes re-entry plans in campaign literature. When contacted by The Baltimore Sun, both businessman Larry Hogan and Harford County Commissioner David R. Craig said state prisons are mismanaged and criticized the administration of Gov. Martin O'Malley for a corruption scandal at the Baltimore City Detention Center. Charles Lollar did not respond to email or a phone call.

The Democratic candidates frequently make their pitches in vote-rich Baltimore, which has no local candidate in the governor's race and where about half of the inmates released each year return. More than 6,000 former inmates return to the city annually.

In the past four Democratic primary contests, the city delivered the third- or fourth-highest number of votes in the state.

"It's about time they did this," said Matthew Crenson, political science professor emeritus at the Johns Hopkins University. "The Baltimore metropolitan area is a political free-fire zone because it has no favored son or daughter."

Although felons can't vote in Maryland until they have completed their probation and parole, advocates say that the economic and social effects of incarceration and re-incarceration reverberate through affected communities.

"There are quite a lot of voters who have family members that are in this cycle, and this may be the first example of someone running for public office speaking to something that directly affects their lives," said Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary's College.

Keeping people from returning to prison is also a budget issue. Maryland spends, on average, about $38,000 per year per prisoner, analysts say. Though Maryland's recidivism rate is lower that of many states, a full 40 percent of inmates return to prison within three years, according to the state's most recent statistics.

"There's a real human face to recidivism," Gansler said in an interview last week. "When someone comes out of jail, we can say their life is over, or we can give them a chance to succeed."

Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown's entire public safety plan rests on the mission to "improve the safety of our communities by increasing opportunities and supports for Marylanders re-entering society who seek to leave their criminal past behind."

"In the long run, it's good for everybody," Brown said in an interview. "When people have work, they're less likely to commit a crime."

Del. Heather Mizeur, talking last month to a NAACP forum in Baltimore, framed the issue with a question: "When you get out of jail, how do you make sure it's not a revolving door?" she asked the crowd. She drew cheers for her answer: "Re-entry starts at entry. Nobody is beyond redemption."

The candidates pitch plans that would enhance existing programs and train inmates for jobs before they leave prison. Veteran Democratic political strategist Michael Morrill said the issue makes good political sense beyond Baltimore, where progressive Democratic voters want "to elect a candidate who wants to right a wrong."

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