Economic Development

Mean Streets Revisited

Ex-cons coming home in big numbers threaten the stability of fragile inner-city neighborhoods.
by | April 2003

Jacky Cornish stands on a busy corner in northwest Baltimore, pointing across an empty lot to two blocks of tidy new townhouses on Brunt Street, a short distance away. As the executive director of the Druid Heights Community Development Corporation, Cornish has spent more than a decade working to restore the fortunes of this neighborhood and its 10,000 residents. Just a few years ago, Brunt Street was one of her biggest problems, its run-down row houses a magnet for crack and heroin addicts and a constant source of crime. Today, Cornish says with obvious pride, the open-air drug market one block to the south is gone, replaced by an immaculate playground, and people are once more clamoring to live on Blunt Street.

But she can't help wondering if the renaissance will last. Not far from the townhouses, a new drug market has surfaced. Touts and dealers are pushing "red tops," "blue tops" and "yellow jackets," potent vials of crack or caps of heroin. And users are lining up to buy. A problem that seemed on the verge of solution is getting worse again--"steadily worse," Cornish says. No matter how many times the police sweep the drug corners, they always seem to fill back up.

As far as Cornish is concerned, there's one overarching reason for this depressing relapse: the massive influx of ex-offenders leaving prison and returning to their old hangouts and habits. More than 10,000 convicted felons have completed their sentences and returned to the streets of Baltimore over the course of the past 12 months, and, while exact figures are elusive, officials estimate that between 700 and 1,200 are somewhere in the vicinity of Druid Heights.

This is becoming a big problem very fast, in Baltimore and throughout urban America. Over the past two decades, the United States has imprisoned more people for longer terms than ever before. But even the longest terms eventually end, (save for the 5 percent of inmates who are locked away for life), and now the offenders locked up at the peak of the sentencing period in the mid-1990s are coming out in unprecedented numbers. Nationwide, approximately 1,600 offenders are leaving prison every day--quadruple the release rate of two decades ago. In a way, urban neighborhoods such as Druid Heights are their Ellis Islands.

But unlike the immigrants who came to such places a century ago, most of these people won't make it very far. Based on past experience, two- thirds of them will be back in prison within three years. In the interim, many will burglarize cars and houses, strip building sites, steal stashes--and worse--to support their drug habits and simply to survive. They'll strain the urban health care system to its breaking point, spread HIV, hepatitis C and tuberculosis.

And, in Jacky Cornish's worst nightmare, they will scare working- and middle-class people away and stop the neighborhood revival dead in its tracks. "Who wants to move into a brand-new house--I don't care how beautiful it is," she says, "if there are a bunch of drug addicts standing out there on the corner?"

It's an issue no urban government can afford to ignore. And after a long period of not-so-benign neglect, city leaders and state corrections systems are waking up to it. They are conceding the central role of ex-offenders in a whole host of social ills and beginning to develop programs to ease their transition back into society. The programs to watch right now are in two cities--Baltimore and Fort Wayne, Indiana. Both have achieved promising, if very preliminary, results. They represent two very different approaches, based on different assumptions about what the role of public agencies in prisoner reentry ought to be.


There is one point on which virtually everyone agrees: the current reentry system is a disaster. In many cities, reentry involves little more than being dropped off from a prison bus with somewhere between $15 and $40 and a list of community phone numbers. The addicts rush off to get high, many of the rest pay for a few minutes with a prostitute; and just about all of them spend scarce money on cigarettes. Few are able to find or keep a steady job, or avoid slipping back into substance abuse.

The transition from prison wasn't always so haphazard. Until the late 1970s, state penal codes generally gave judges and state parole boards considerable leeway in determining how much time an inmate would serve. To get out, a prisoner had to put together a parole "package" and convince his parole board that he could reenter society successfully. As part of the package, inmates usually had to explain where they intended to live and how they would make a living. In short, inmates had to have a transition plan. It often wasn't much, but it was better than nothing.

Unfortunately, this system didn't always work: Convicts out on parole sometimes committed horrible crimes. By the late 1980s, governors were winning election on promises to abolish parole altogether, and many states had adopted "truth-in-sentencing" laws that sharply curtailed the discretion of judges and parole boards over when prisoners would be released.

There's little question that locking offenders up for longer periods did reduce crime in the 1990s--and it stretched their releases further into the new decade. But the sheer size of the prison cohort of the 1990s virtually guaranteed a flood of ex-convicts returning to the streets in big clusters when their sentences were finally up. That is what is happening now. With parole boards in many states relegated to the sidelines and parole agents overburdened, transition planning for prisoners being released has gone from not very good to virtually non- existent. The result has been a generation of ex-offenders like Steve Wilson.


Wilson started dealing drugs in and around Druid Heights in the 1960s. Back then, this was a community of Greek and Jewish shop owners and hard-working, lower-middle-class black families. Drug dealing was not unknown, but it centered around the nightclubs and music scene along thriving Pennsylvania Avenue, then known as the Broadway of black Baltimore. Heroin was the drug of choice. Dealing took place behind closed doors, and guns were rarely seen.

That all changed with the appearance of crack cocaine in the mid- 1980s. The drug business moved outside onto the streets. Dealers were younger; guns more common; and violence an everyday occurrence. Most of Baltimore's estimated 60,000 drug addicts were soon injecting and/or snorting potent cocktails of heroin and crack. Wilson was one of them. He was increasingly frightened by the guns and the violence, but he couldn't kick his drug dependence or find a decent job. So his life fell into a rhythm. He'd deal a little to make money and support his habit, get picked up by the police, serve some time and then be back out on the corner. Eventually he'd be arrested again, locked away on a possession charge for a few years, and the cycle would repeat itself.

As far as Wilson was concerned, there were no alternatives to slinging drugs on the corner. "If you don't have a job and a place to live when you get out, let me tell you, you're headed right back," he says.

In 1999, Wilson was sentenced to three years for the possession of cocaine. In September 2002, he finished his prison stint and returned to Druid Heights. But this time, Wilson's release has played out differently, thanks in part to a program called the Maryland Reentry Partnership.

The partnership is the result of an unusual collaboration among the Maryland Correction and Parole divisions, the Baltimore police and health departments, the mayor's office, the nonprofit Enterprise Foundation and three community development corporations in Baltimore's most troubled neighborhoods. Enterprise, started in the 1980s by the late developer James Rouse, funds low-income housing nationwide. It has long viewed public safety and reentry problems as a major obstacle to revitalizing blighted neighborhoods.

The goal of the partnership was straightforward: to customize a comprehensive transition plan for individual inmates--not just a list of resources--and pair those inmates with someone who could actually help obtain the services needed to survive on the street. But getting the community groups to trust the bureaucrats proved difficult.

"These folks did not have great feelings about us or about public safety," says Jack Kavanagh, then the acting commissioner for program services at the Maryland Correction Division. "There was a lot of anger and frustration: They said 'You guys release people without preparation. You put them out on the street with mental problems; you put them out on the street with health problems; you don't give them any I.D. You don't do anything to get them ready.'"

For Kavanagh, the former head of a super-max prison facility, appearing in front of 60 angry community residents at a job-training center in East Baltimore was a novel and challenging experience. But he stuck with it. Eventually, the Correction Division and the Enterprise Foundation found community-based organizations in three neighborhoods--Druid Heights, Sandtown-Winchester and East Baltimore-- that were willing to work with them.

Even more problematical was winning the trust of the ex-convicts themselves. The group decided that each ex-offender would have both a caseworker, responsible for developing the inmate's transition plans, and an advocate, a fellow ex-offender who would serve as a kind of "big brother." "They will not walk through the doors of an organization by themselves if they don't know who they are going to meet," says Tomi Hiers, the Enterprise Foundation's program director for the Reentry Partnership. "They're scared. So the advocates kind of act as a buffer. Because they're ex-offenders, they have street 'cred.'"

Baltimore's program has been underway since April 2001. The process begins "behind the fence," where a Correction Division caseworker identifies prisoners from the five high-crime neighborhoods, including Druid Heights, whose residents are eligible for the program. The program itself is voluntary. For those who sign up, the process begins with an exit orientation 30 days before release. There they meet the caseworker, the advocate, the parole agent and a police officer. The group develops a transition plan, and the caseworker sets to work on it, lining up transitional housing, drug treatment, and sometimes job training for when the prisoner gets out.

On the day of release, if the prisoner has no one to pick him up, the advocate meets him at the prison gate and drives him to the home of a family member or to a half-way house. Thereafter, the caseworker and advocate arrange for a physical exam, help with medical-assistance forms and take steps to get the reentering prisoner a driver's license. Sometimes they take him to job interviews. At any given time, there are six caseworkers and advocates serving a total population of approximately 150 released prisoners, for periods that range from a few months to two years.


One of the first things the officials in Maryland discovered was just how needy their target population was. They had expected that about 30 percent of their clients would need transitional housing assistance; in fact, about 70 percent have needed it. More than 80 percent of the ex-offenders enrolled in the program have substance-abuse problems.

The housing puzzle has been more or less solvable. Housing is the business that community development corporations are most familiar with, and generally they have been able to obtain places for returning prisoners to live. Drug treatment is another matter. Baltimore's supply of treatment slots, particularly those providing long-term residential rehabilitation, is inadequate to meet the demand. More elusive still are the steady, decently paying jobs that inmates want so desperately when they walk out of the prison gates.

Even so, according to Steve Wilson, the difference between being in the reentry program and simply being thrown back on the streets is immense. "Before this program, there was nothing," he says. "Was my parole officer going to take me out to a job interview? No." Without the reentry program, he says with grim certainty, "I'd be back in jail by now."

Wilson lives in a transitional housing facility owned by the Druid Heights Community Development Corporation. He has completed a certification program for training in hazardous-material removal, and as long as he is willing to spend his days clearing out asbestos and other substances few people will go near, he has a chance to land a job paying anywhere from $13 to $19 an hour. Unlike most of the ex- cons who will hit the streets of Baltimore this year, Wilson has a decent shot at making it.

Virtually everyone involved with the Maryland partnership is convinced that the key to its promise is the grass-roots involvement. "These communities need to be invested and in control because that's who's impacted the most," says Kavanagh, now the deputy corrections director in Howard County, Maryland. "These nonprofits have the ability to do things and change more quickly than state agencies."

If you go to Fort Wayne, you hear a very different story. In the opinion of reentry specialists there, Baltimore's decision to base its reentry programming on community groups and foundation money is seriously misguided, a small-scale experiment that could never solve the returning convict problems of a huge city. Terry Donahue, a special assistant at the U.S. Justice Department who helped design the Fort Wayne program, argues that looking to foundations and nonprofits to deal with prison reentry discourages state and local governments from taking on responsibilities they should assume themselves. Moreover, he says, private funding for a Maryland-style program will always be vulnerable. "Just because you have money now," Donahue says, "doesn't mean you will have resources over time."

The Fort Wayne approach relies instead on a "Reentry Court," a partnership between the local judicial system and Allen County Community Corrections, an agency that supervises and treats about 4,500 convicts a year. The program is focused on Fort Wayne's highest- crime area--the low-income, largely African-American southeast quadrant of the city. This is where most of the estimated 350 ex- offenders who return to Fort Wayne each year choose to live. A transition team meets with the inmate the week before release to draw up a transition plan, and the inmate appears before a Superior Court judge in a makeshift courtroom at the Southeast district police station to verify the agreement. The judge continues to monitor each inmate's progress for the duration of the plan. If the judge decides an inmate has violated the rules, he can turn to either the Community Corrections office or the state parole board to "shut them down," which can mean anything from household confinement to, in extreme cases, a return to prison.

In some ways, the procedures in Baltimore and in Fort Wayne are similar. But Fort Wayne's is strictly a government operation. There is no foundation money, no grass-roots participation, no involvement from community development corporations.

In the beginning, there were fears that residents of southeast Fort Wayne wouldn't accept the program. Indeed, some did complain that they were being singled out for intrusion and that the program would stigmatize their neighborhood as a high-crime area. The response from the program's directors was to generate detailed maps showing the close overlap between crime rates and the areas ex-offenders were returning to. "You could literally turn a crowd in an hour or two," says Reentry Court Judge John Surbeck, "from 'We don't have a problem and you're just stigmatizing this area,' to literally 180-degrees the other direction: 'Why are you bringing these bad people back to us?'" Surbeck's answer to the latter question is a simple one: This is where they happen to live.

So which works better--Baltimore's community- and foundation-based approach, or Fort Wayne's reentry court? At this point, it's simply too early to say. Both have shown promising, if still very preliminary, reductions in recidivism. Of the 179 people who had gone through the Maryland Reentry Partnership by the end of 2002, only three had ended up back in jail. In Fort Wayne, only about 20 percent of the ex-offenders who participated in the reentry court had committed another offense by the end of the first year.

Each system has its advantages. In cities where relations between neighborhoods and public safety agencies are strained, it makes sense to bring in the local CDCs, especially where transitional housing is concerned. But a reentry court system is much simpler to operate, and it is a great deal cheaper. The Maryland Reentry Partnership has already received $800,000 in combined public and private funding, while the only cost incurred by the Fort Wayne program--not counting the time of the staffers who already work for Community Corrections-- has been a $15-per-inmate processing fee.

What proponents of both strategies seem to realize is that the status quo approach to prisoner reentry all over America is a disaster. In some ways, this realization couldn't have come at a worse time. Putting more resources into helping felons is a hard sell at a moment when state and local budgets are being slashed. Indeed, in recent months Kentucky and Oregon have begun to release inmates simply to cut costs, ignoring the fact that most of them will offend again and force governments to spend tens of thousands of additional dollars prosecuting them.

But given the full range of problems ex-offenders cause--and the potential they have for destabilizing fragile neighborhoods such as Druid Heights--it may be that spending money on reentry is not so much an expense as a way to stanch a dangerous (and expensive) wound.

"The state of Maryland spends over $600 million a year just on corrections alone," Jack Kavanagh points out. "Do you still want to take the approach where you lock them up, let them out and have over a 50 percent recidivism rate? Or do you want to try and invest in some things that might have an impact on recidivism? To me, it's a no- brainer."


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