Crisis Meets Opportunity in Baltimore

Looking to curb violence, city leaders are charting a path for incarcerated people to successfully re-enter society.
November 12, 2015 AT 11:00 AM
Like many other urban areas, Baltimore is facing increased violence. But the city is no stranger to innovative solutions -- its leaders reclaimed its once dilapidated inner harbor, transforming it into a world-class tourist destination. (Shutterstock/Jon Bilous)
By Ron Littlefield  |  Senior Fellow
Ron Littlefield, a former mayor of Chattanooga, Tenn., is a senior fellow with the Governing Institute and its lead analyst on the City Accelerator initiative. A city planner by career, he also consults to government through Littlefield Associates.

No one could have planned it and certainly no one would have wished it to happen, but recent civil unrest in Baltimore has thrust it into the national spotlight as a prime example of the serious challenges cities across the nation currently face.

As noted in numerous news articles, Baltimore's troubles didn't begin with the tragic death of Freddie Gray and the nation’s urban challenges didn’t start with the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. – although both events undoubtedly exacerbated an already tense and troubling time. After years of steady decline, violence in our cities – punctuated by shootings and homicides – was already increasing.

Before the death of Freddie Gray and the ensuing protests, Baltimore had already submitted a proposal to become part of Cohort II of the City Accelerator. The City Accelerator, an initiative of Living Cities and the Citi Foundation, is designed to promote and facilitate an enhanced environment of innovation among local governments. Baltimore's proposal highlighted efforts to reduce acts of violent crime with particular emphasis on helping citizens successfully return to the community after release from incarceration.

Renard Brooks, re-entry program coordinator in the Baltimore Mayor's Office of Human Services, recently told me, “We know that, unfortunately, our prisons have become the new mental health institutions.” He described the city's efforts efforts to marshal supportive services designed to help individuals and their families. Brooks said the city is using discharge planning and re-entry housing vouchers to provide formerly incarcerated individuals a smoother transition to life outside prison walls.

“One of the unique things we have been able to do is conduct service fairs for former inmates and their families,” he said. One particular effort is the "Let's Talk" series, which encourages program participants to tell their stories in their own words, thereby helping staff better understand their needs. Like many other cities, Baltimore uses the successful Boston “Operation Ceasefire” model to identify and address violent individuals and gangs. Brooks said Baltimore is in the early stages of using those same techniques to help the most violent offenders get their lives on the right track. For more details on the city's comprehensive approach, Brooks recommends the “Baltimore City's Jail Re-entry Strategies" report.

In a separate interview, Daniel Atzmon, prevention specialist in the Baltimore Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice, told me the city’s program to address urban violence extends beyond individuals returning home from incarceration. Atzmon pointed to the debilitating effects of crime and violence on Baltimore citizens, including lost income and property, and diminishing positive relationships between citizens and government. Atzmon spoke of several of Baltimore’s specific attempts to reconnect people and police, including the “Badges for Baseball and Softball” program – a product of the Cal Ripken, Sr. Foundation that builds ball fields and uses individuals in law enforcement as mentors and coaches. Atzmon said while the initiative is a small effort, it’s still a step in the right direction to positively impact often hard-to-reach inner-city youth.

“People are seeing the pent-up pain many communities have suffered with for a long time,” he said. “We are starting to see things pay off.” He sees the city's efforts producing "more successful interventions and (sometimes) more convictions. These are uncertain times and uncertainty affects everybody. Crisis does create opportunity. The City Accelerator is helping us recognize that if we don't get people the assistance they need, we are failing at crime prevention.”

Whatever the reasons for the plague of urban violence, we must recognize it as a serious problem we must address sooner rather than later. As I write this, my community – the mid-size city of Chattanooga – is wrestling with the same troubling issues. In spite of investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in consultants and carefully adopting the best practices of much-larger communities, we are on track to equal or exceed the same violence and homicide rates of previous years. It's complicated.

However, those of us who love cities must remain engaged and encourage efforts to address these problems. We should all be cheering for Baltimore while doing whatever we can to promote and further its efforts. Baltimore is a city with a successful track record of innovation. Its leaders reclaimed its dilapidated inner harbor, transforming it into a world-class tourist destination. They practically invented the new model for today's urban aquarium, serving as an anchor of interest and centerpiece of inner-city animation. They devised creative approaches to facilitate urban homesteading and used it as a tool to attract pioneering families who bought abandoned structures for a dollar and then invested their lives in bringing back rows of beautiful townhouses. Baltimore is famous for facing down destructive giants of urban deterioration and for resolving intractable difficulties.

Perhaps they can do it again.

Be part of the campaign for civic innovation at the City Accelerator, presented by Citi Foundation.