I ASKED Donta Ellerbe, a 28-year-old Baltimorean who spent too much of his young life selling heroin in his hometown, what he would like to do for a living, now that he's sworn off the hustle, and this is what he said: "I'm a good people person. I think I would be good at customer service."
I'm guessing he'd be good at sales and marketing, too.
But it's not an outrageous idea. Here's a young man who seems to have a
positive outlook, a bright personality and entrepreneurial spirit, someone who
served a client base for several years, and lived to tell about it. He was
smart enough to have avoided using the dope he sold to others. When I spoke to
him the other day, his voice was energetic and clear.
And it struck me as a shame he hadn't stepped to a different platform and
boarded a different train back in the day -- or that the state of Maryland
hadn't helped him find a new life while we had him in our custody for four
Ellerbe got caught up in the street sales of a controlled dangerous
substance 10 or 12 years ago, and, with the average annual cost of
incarceration per inmate being $24,000, that choice ended up costing taxpayers
of Maryland roughly $100,000 for room and board at our penal institutions.
What a waste of Ellerbe's talents.
What a waste of our money.
Too bad this young man hadn't had or made other choices, from the time he
was a juvenile.
He says he started selling heroin when he was a student at Dunbar High
School, and that enterprise continued for years. Twice, when he went away to
prison on drug charges, he came out and started selling again.
What did we expect? We took the corrections out of corrections years ago,
and we're only now talking about changing the approach so that people like
Ellerbe -- nonviolent, low-level drug offenders (dealers, users and
user-dealers) have other choices when they emerge from prison.
After his first couple of stints in Hagerstown and Jessup and with no other
job and no one really pushing him to change his life, Ellerbe reverted to what
Last time he got picked up was winter 2004. The police officer who arrested
him found $600 cash in his pocket, Ellerbe says, and the woman standing next
to him was holding a small amount of heroin. He got another year in the jail
after pleading guilty to a conspiracy charge. He's been out since March, lives
at his mother's house in East Baltimore, and goes out on the job-hunt each day
with his friend, Marquise Hayes.
Ellerbe hasn't been able to land a job yet because he has two felonies on
his record, and he's found that most companies won't hire him because those
crimes -- drug possession and conspiracy -- occurred within the last seven
What's keeping him from drifting back to heroin sales? The threat of
incarceration. "If I get three felonies, I know I'm looking at hard time," he
says. "And I can't spend any more time in jail."
Smart young man. He already knows what many in the Maryland court system
know, and what on Monday came out of a report by the Justice Policy Institute
in Washington -- we're still taking a hard line on drug offenders.
Judges in Maryland are sending relatively low-level drug dealers and
addicts to prison at rates comparable to, or higher than, those convicted of
violent and serious offenses, the Justice Policy Institute concluded.
"In their current form," the report said, "Maryland's sentencing guidelines
recommend harsher penalties in drug cases than cases involving violent
offenses; make little distinction between major drug dealers and substance
abusers who sell just to feed a habit; and treat behaviors common to addiction
-- such as a record of petty crime or probation failures -- more seriously
than past violent behavior."
In the case of Donta Ellerbe, the threat of hard time might keep him from
returning to heroin sales. Which is a good thing. I can't dismiss the
deterrent quality of prison time. It's real.
But for how long will that threat keep a jobless guy like Ellerbe from
drifting back into the hustle? As a nonviolent drug offender with a high
school education, he should have been sentenced into a program to prepare him
for a job years ago.
I've talked to dozens of guys who've done a lot more time than Ellerbe for
comparable CDS crimes, and for violating conditions of probation. Many of them
were user-dealers, and most of them emerged from years of mindless
incarceration and went right back to old habits -- either doing dope or
But what's the surprise?
If they're not getting what they truly need -- for the addict, intensive
treatment and follow-up counseling; for the dealer, a "diversion" into some
new career -- then we get what we deserve: a 50 percent recidivism rate and a
persistent drug problem in the city and suburbs.
Treatment for drug abuse and job-training and re-entry programs for
low-level dealers, like Donta Ellerbe, would be a lot more cost-effective than
the expensive lock-'em-up we've been paying for. It doesn't make sense.