Monday, February 22, 2010

Simple Solutions for a Complex Reality

originally published June 8, 2009

I've been a fan of Baltimore Sun columnist Dan Rodricks from the days I first saw that he “got it” when it comes to criminal justice. You can always recognize quality journalists when they write on topics you know something about.

I also admire Rodricks for his efforts to back up his opinions with action. He has beaten the drum repeatedly on behalf of ex-convicts, not just with columns but by giving ex-offenders his phone number and making personal efforts to persuade employers to take a chance on them. And he’s right: we cannot expect former prisoners to straighten out their lives if they cannot find jobs in the legitimate business world.

But I puzzled over a sentence in his most recent column on the issue, published May 20: that ex-offender unemployment is “the main reason why the estimated recidivism rate—the rate of return of inmates to prison within three years of their release—is about 67 percent.”

Is it that simple? Find them jobs, and the recidivism rate will plummet? My experience tells me not. Do the same psychosocial problems that afflicted them before their imprisonment just disappear? Will those who were not working prior to their criminal activity suddenly manifest the qualities needed to become working members of society?

Poking around the mountain of studies that seem to be out there, I found a 2004 report on Baltimore ex-offenders published by the Urban Institute that suggested that family support and connections played the most significant role in the successful return home from prison. (To be sure, family connections helped find jobs, too.) The study also noted that substance abuse and the age of the ex-offenders played significant roles in the recidivism rate. The younger the offender, the more likely to commit more crimes.

Rodricks devoted his column to a report on a pilot program in Montgomery County for prisoners within one year of release who are allowed to find work as they finish up their sentences. Rodricks was so impressed with the program that he called for its expansion at the state level.

I read the report and it is excellent. It’s not some rosy-eyed look at an innovative program that ignores reality. For example, the report notes the fact that many offenders aren’t ready for work before they go to prison. It points out that evaluations of supported work programs for prisoners and ex-prisoners “have long found that [they have] a more constructive effect on women and older participants than on the young men who are the primary demographic group leaving the nation’s prisons.”

And it candidly reports that the Montgomery County program has yet to collect information regarding the recidivism rate of the offenders (though it is working to correct that.) This leaves a gaping hole in understanding its long-term effectiveness.

But the program does appear to have merit, and it’s not my intent to dismiss Rodricks’ enthusiasm. We just need to proceed carefully. I have too much experience with well-intentioned programs that require a lot of taxpayer money and ultimately don’t deliver. I know Rodricks remembers Early Disposition Court, the failed program that former Mayor Martin O’Malley claimed would dramatically cut court dockets and the jail population.

Speaking of unsupported claims, the Baltimore Sun wrote an editorial April 6th advocating for more substance abuse treatment and less incarceration because Maryland’s prisons were “overflowing with low-level drug offenders who keep the revolving door spinning as they continue to commit minor crimes to support their habits.”

Are low-level drug offenders the ones who populate our prisons? I asked the Department of Public Safety to shed some light on this issue. Were there any studies or other information in their possession that would support such a claim? A spokesperson replied, “I have no idea what prompted the Sun [to] write that,” and suggested that the Sun used a Justice Policy Institute study as their source. I looked up the study, and it said nothing that could substantiate the editorial’s claim.

Ironically, it did say said that incarceration rates in Maryland have fallen over the past 10 years. The most the report suggested was a climbing rate of arrest for drug possession. Arrests are different than prison sentences.

From my experience in the criminal justice trenches, the city of Baltimore isn’t overburdening Maryland prisons with drug-offending addicts. They mostly get probation, fines, and community service. Who is right: the Sun, me, or neither?

The answer is important. Only when we have accurate facts supported by data and real-world experience can we fashion the best remedies. And usually those remedies will be multi-faceted because the facts and causes of a problem are multi-faceted. The simple solutions I see advocated so often aren’t so simple in reality.

With that caution, however, I agree with Dan Rodricks and the Sun that we must change the way we do business when it comes to crime.

The Baltimore Sun

In my previous blog Sensation and Substance I said I didn’t blame the Sun for its dwindling inability to report in depth, I blamed us citizens. I should have said I don’t blame the Sun entirely.

While I am no expert on newspaper finances, it seems rather clear that the outside owners over in Chicago are focused more upon profitability than substance, which ironically has driven many faithful Sun subscribers away. And reading former columnist David Steele’s account of his dismissal via cell-phone as he sat in Camden Yards covering a baseball game for the Sun, it is obvious that the Sun’s corporate behavior is no less callous and money-oriented than any other business. See

Having journalists disappear from its pages without a word is just one of the many disquieting things about the Sun that tempts me to move on as well. I am resisting because the idea of our city and state governments operating without a local daily newspaper to report on them makes me shudder.

I just ask that whatever diminishing facts the Sun can still report be accurate. In the same April editorial about prisons “overflowing” with addicts the Sun wrote that “former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke called for treating addicts rather than imprisoning them back in the 1980s—and was zapped for being soft on crime.”

That’s just misleading. Schmoke made national news for having the political fortitude to suggest the decriminalization of drugs. That’s very different from merely preferring treatment to prison, and the Sun knows it. Why did it manipulate the facts? Does it want to call for decriminalization but lacks Schmoke’s courage?

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