The Transformation from Convict to Councilwoman

The story of Demetrus Coonrod reinforces the efforts of Baltimore to engage citizens returning from incarceration.

Recently, an unusual thing happened in Chattanooga that made me think of Baltimore.

Baltimore is part of City Accelerator’s second cohort focused on civic engagement, but the city has a unique take on the subject. As part of the cohort, Baltimore proposed to engage what it calls returning citizens -- that is, criminals, or more specifically, convicted felons, who were completing their sentences and preparing to return to a life outside of prison walls. The city's proposal to City Accelerator was outlined in a five-minute video and is summarized as follows:

Baltimore aims to engage people leaving incarceration and their families to help reduce violent crime in the city, as part of a broader engagement effort. The city, led by the Mayor’s Office on Criminal Justice, would use a mix of traditional and technology-based approaches to engage this population, and is looking to the City Accelerator for support and best practices for this initiative.

After Baltimore was selected to participate in the second cohort, I wrote a piece
for City Accelerator explaining my long-term attachment to the city and my admiration for the creative and innovative leadership that has characterized that community over the years. I attempted to paint a realistic picture of Baltimore as a city that is attempting to deal with the difficult and persistent problems of urban America, while not allowing its good intentions to be overshadowed by the riots that had so recently torn the community apart following the death of Freddie Gray in police custody.

As anyone who follows urban affairs will confirm, Baltimore is a city with high rates of crime and poverty. Studies have found the toughest areas to be in the central city near the acclaimed Johns Hopkins campus -- offering a stark contrast between hope and despair. The HBO series "The Wire" might be somewhat exaggerated in the way it depicts the most crime-ridden parts of the city, but it's not all fiction. Baltimore does send a high percentage of its population to prison, and its incarceration rate is almost three times the national average. It costs taxpayers approximately $300 million each year to house inmates from that city alone. Another hard fact that must be faced is that, sooner or later, most of those that are sent away to jail are coming back. The community must be prepared.

Baltimore's desire to find more effective ways to return felons to a productive lifestyle goes beyond a charitable interest in helping those incarcerated individuals and their families (admirable though that might be) -- it's also a matter of reducing the impacts of crime and the overall costs of imprisonment that burden the entire community.

With that in mind, Baltimore set out to pursue several broad goals:

  • Taking active measures to reach out and include returning citizens and their families in the government decision-making process.
  • Increasing the numbers of returning citizens involved in neighborhood or community associations.
  • Increasing the numbers of returning citizens in community relations councils that advise the city regarding how to make neighborhoods safer.
  • Achieving measurable improvements in public and police relations.
And that brings me back to Chattanooga and the unlikely story of Demetrus Coonrod. In April, Ms. Coonrod was sworn in as a new member of the Chattanooga City Council after defeating a long-term incumbent in a runoff election. But just a few years earlier, she stood before a federal judge and was sentenced to seven years for conspiracy to commit armed robbery. Coonrod was sent away to prison in Tallahassee, Fla. For most individuals, the story might end there.

I didn't really know Coonrod, though she now represents my council district. She reminded me that we met once before during my time as mayor when she came to seek my help following the death of her boyfriend during a shooting at a local convenience store in 2010. Interviewing her this week at City Hall, I told her that her life is inspiring, compelling and potentially very useful to other communities.

We talked a little about a recent account in the Chattanooga Times Free Press
that chronicles her rise "From Convict to Councilwoman." I told her about Baltimore and how the city is working to engage and reintegrate felons returning from prison into everyday life. We took a few minutes to watch Baltimore's City Accelerator video and discussed the parallels -- particularly how her story might inspire others.

I found it most interesting that without really intending to do so, she has already addressed the heart of Baltimore's goals for citizens returning from incarceration. She told me that she spent her time in prison learning new skills that she put into practice after her release. "First there was Alstom (a major local manufacturer) that needed the computer capabilities I had and, when that employer went away, along came Volkswagen and I went to work there," she said. "It wasn't always easy, but I just kept going and going."

When asked what advice she might have for cities like Baltimore, she offered, "Make sure they (the returning felons) have a plan and make sure they have housing and counseling. As for the city's responsibility for the returnees, don't let go of their hand after 30 days. And to the returnees themselves, they need to know how to answer the questions about their past. A lot of people say they will hire convicted felons but they won't. You just have to keep moving forward."

I could not help but believe that if Baltimore and other cities attempting to address the issue of citizens returning from incarceration could capture and distill the spirit and determination of Demetrus Coonrod, that life would be that much easier for all concerned. She is a living example that there can be a useful and productive life after a hard and (some might say) hopeless childhood -- even after several years in federal prison.

Other cities should take note of Councilwoman Demetrus Coonrod. 

Did I mention that the federal judge that heard her case and sentenced her to prison was the same federal judge that recently swore her in as a member of Chattanooga's City Council?

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.