Effort's goal is to make solid citizens of criminals

TOMI HIERS, who serves in the Ehrlich administration with a half-mile title- executive assistant to the deputy secretary for operations, Department ofPublic Safety and Correctional Services - believes the Republican governor ofMaryland means to do what no Democrat in recent memory was able to do: turncriminals into productive citizens, give a guy a second chance. Theadministration wants to stop wasting taxpayer money - $24,000 per year perinmate - on a revolving door. "We are trying to change the culture ofcorrections," Hiers says.

It's about time.

After decades marked by the war on drugs, mandatory sentencing, prisonexpansion and overcrowding, we have government officials, nonprofit agenciesand even business leaders speaking about preparing offenders for a good returnto society, supported by drug treatment, job training and counseling. They'retrying a holistic approach - identifying inmates' needs, making thememployable, and connecting them to offender support groups outside prisonwalls.

It's a huge challenge - stifling the mindless appetite for moreincarceration, funding drug treatment, convincing Maryland businesses to hireex-offenders - but the Ehrlich administration might be the one that finallyputs corrections back into corrections.

Mary Ann Saar, Ehrlich's secretary of public safety and correctionalservices, speaks regularly about how we've gotten nowhere after years ofwarehousing criminals. "They come back," she says. "And if they keep comingback at the same status, or worse, what do we expect? So, I say, let's suck itup and do what needs to be done."

It was Saar who brought Hiers into the agency to work on its biggestfailing - the recidivism rate.

Half of inmates released from Maryland's prisons return to them withinthree years, and that has particularly severe consequences for Hiers'hometown, Baltimore. Nearly 70 percent of the men and women who come out ofMaryland prisons each year return to the city. Last year, 9,800 came backhere. Other years, the number has been in the range of 7,500 and 8,000. Do themath, and you have a handle on just how intractable this problem is, withoutreform.

Hiers, 29, experienced this depressing side of Baltimore firsthand.

She grew up in the Johnston Square community in East Baltimore, an area ofentrenched poverty and drug addiction. She attended Dunbar Middle Schoolbefore moving on to Western High School. Years later, Hiers and three otherwomen who came out of East Baltimore did an accounting of their old Dunbarclassmates; they concluded that all of the boys from their seventh-gradehomeroom (33 students) in 1987 were either dead or incarcerated.

Sad but not surprising.

Starting in 1989, through the 1990s, homicides in Baltimore topped 300annually; the rate has fallen since 2000 but remains high against a downwardtrend in other American cities. Today, nearly one in five black men 20 to 30years old is in prison, and more than half are under the control of thecriminal justice system in some way, according to a report this year by theWashington-based Justice Policy Institute. Most of these offenders are somehowinvolved in drugs and the drug trade, the report said. Tomi Hiers thinks therate is around 80 percent.

Do the math: Without intervention while these guys are in prison, we canexpect a few thousand repeat offenders - anywhere from 6,000 to 8,000 doingdope or selling it - back on Baltimore streets every year.

And that number does not include offenders already on parole or probation,or those coming out of the federal prison system. Add the collateral damagefrom the drug culture - homicides, unemployment, dysfunctional families,neglected or abused children, burglaries and robberies committed in city andsuburban neighborhoods to support habits - and you can see why serious,bottom-up reform is needed.

That's what Saar has Tomi Hiers working on, bringing to the Marylandcorrectional system what she learned in her previous gig, the EnterpriseFoundation-managed Maryland Reentry Partnership (REP). An intense casemanagement program that begins while an offender is still in prison, REPclaims a 70 percent success rate among about 300 Maryland inmates since 2001.REP costs about $3,000 per inmate.

Taking this kind of approach throughout Maryland, and the United States,requires the big-think/new-think Hiers and Saar talk about. "I know it canwork," Hiers says. "I saw it at REP."

But we're talking about a cultural change, and Hiers thinks that might beunder way - inside prison, and out. Her boss, Saar, has a seat on theGovernor's Workforce Investment Board, and that board, comprising business andgovernment leaders, is taking a look at developing more workers out ofMaryland's offender population.

And that brings us to the next big step - persuading businesses to take achance on giving a guy a second chance.

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