Port Cov­ing­ton should com­mit to hir­ing ex-of­fend­ers

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - By Vanessa Bright Vanessa Bright is a New Econ­omy Mary­land fel­low at the In­sti­tute for Pol­icy Stud­ies and a fam­ily and con­sumer sciences ed­u­ca­tor for Univer­sity of Mary­land Ex­ten­sion. She can be reached at hello@bee­hav­in­prod­ucts.com.

Imag­ine if you had no place to live, no job and no money. What would you do to sur­vive? To get by, would you com­mit a crime?

For­mer in­mates are faced with these ques­tions far too of­ten. Ex-of­fend­ers con­front one press­ing re-en­try chal­lenge af­ter an­other, ev­ery­thing from find­ing a place to live and ar­rang­ing drug abuse treat­ment to get­ting a job. A set­back in any one of these ar­eas can eas­ily lead to re­lapse and a re­turn to prison, what public pol­icy an­a­lysts call “re­cidi­vism.” Re­searchers mea­sure re­cidi­vism by look­ing at the crim­i­nal acts that ex-of­fend­ers com­mit in the three years af­ter prison re­lease. These days, re­searchers have a huge sam­ple of ex-of­fend­ers to track.

Last Novem­ber, changes to fed­eral sen­tenc­ing guide­lines led to the re­lease from cus­tody of about 140 Mary­land in­mates, and hun­dreds more will be el­i­gi­ble for re­lease in fu­ture months. Na­tion­wide, the U.S. Sen­tenc­ing Com­mis­sion es­ti­mates that more than 46,000 in­mates could have their sen­tences re­duced by an av­er­age of 25 months; over 500 of them are ex­pected to re­turn to Mary­land un­der these re­vised sen­tences, most to Bal­ti­more.

These re­leases are tak­ing place at a time when the city is ex­pe­ri­enc­ing an in­crease in homi­cides and shoot­ings — and a deadly heroin epi­demic. Such crime, many fear, will only in­crease when so many more in­mates start re­turn­ing to their home com­mu­ni­ties — a not un­re­al­is­tic con­cern. The for­merly in­car­cer­ated of­ten find them­selves fac­ing the ex­act same pres­sures and temp­ta­tions that landed them in prison in the first place. Ac­cord­ing to 2013 Mary­land data, al­most a third of Mary­land prison ad­mis­sions went to in­di­vid­u­als re­turn­ing to prison from pa­role.

So what can be done to keep peo­ple from cy­cling back into the sys­tem? Let’s start with jobs, per­haps the sin­gle most press­ing ob­sta­cle that frustrates the for­merly in­car­cer­ated.

Bal­ti­more and sev­eral other cities, in­clud­ing the state govern­ment, have passed nec­es­sary re­forms like get­ting em­ploy­ers to stop ask­ing on their em­ploy­ment forms if ap­pli­cants have a crim­i­nal record. And this year, an­other new Mary­land law — the Jus­tice Rein­vest­ment Act — ex­panded the range of low-level drug of­fenses and other mis­de­meanors that can be wiped from for­mer of­fend­ers’ records, which may make it eas­ier for them to find jobs and hous­ing.

But in­di­vid­u­als with crim­i­nal back­grounds still face ma­jor hur­dles in find­ing felon-friendly em­ploy­ment. And not find­ing em­ploy­ment, or find­ing em­ploy­ment at re­ally low-wage lev­els, leaves ex­of­fend­ers un­able to meet their daily liv­ing ex­penses and sup­port their fam­i­lies.

This prison re­volv­ing-door needs to end. With a se­ri­ous show­ing of cor­po­rate so­cial re­spon­si­bil­ity, our large com­pa­nies could help end it. They have the ca­pac­ity to ef­fect real change. Com­pa­nies that of­fer em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties to the for­merly in­car­cer­ated have found that those who pay their debts to so­ci­ety typ­i­cally emerge from prison with a new per­spec­tive and lease on life. They’re used to work­ing hard; they’re grate­ful for an op­por­tu­nity to earn a liv­ing.

And fi­delity bonds and tax cred­its for com­pa­nies will­ing to give the for­merly in­car­cer­ated a sec­ond chance now of­fer firms an in­cen­tive to broaden their hir­ing fo­cus. We have here a po­ten­tial win-win op­por­tu­nity — for com­pa­nies, com­mu­ni­ties, and em­ploy­ees.

Sustainable em­ploy­ment may be our sin­gle best op­por­tu­nity to sig­nif­i­cantly re­duce re­cidi­vism. So let’s do our best to make this em­ploy­ment a re­al­ity.

A de­vel­op­ment project now in the works at Port Cov­ing­ton of­fers us a chance to do just that. This re­cent agree­ment with Sag­amore De­vel­op­ment man­dates that 30 per­cent of all on-site in­fra­struc­ture work be per­formed by city res­i­dents.

Imag­ine what a dif­fer­ence we could make in the lives of the for­merly in­car­cer­ated if Sag­amore would also pledge that at least 10 per­cent of those city-res­i­dent po­si­tions would go to ex-of­fend­ers.

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