Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin : October 2006

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 PRO BONO Profile:  

Staying Out of Trouble

You see it everywhere, from all societal demographics: citizens expressing their concerns about the problems intrinsic to our modern penal system. Currently, well over 60 percent of our nation's incarcerated population become repeat offenders and return to prison. Closer to home, approximately 9,000 men and women leave prison and settle in the greater Baltimore City area each year, with more than 8,000 moving back to the same neighborhoods they left when sent away.

Twenty-five years ago, while teaching a jailhouse stress-management/relaxation class, Mary Joel Davis was approached by women asking for help with their legal problems. Davis recognized the need for in-house legal assistance and the recidivism problems facing those who are released from prison. Rather than simply lamenting over the deficiencies in the penal system, Davis instead founded Alternative Directions Incorporated (ADI), a Baltimore-based nonprofit organization, to fill the need.

ADI's original goal was to give civil legal aid to female prisoners and prevent repeat offenses. The work of ADI has expanded since that time to include services to male prisoners, and ADI continues to assist all of its clients in making the difficult and complex transition from life in prison to becoming a viable and productive member of their respective communities. The efforts of ADI's seven staff members are producing impressive results. In a country where the recidivism rate for prisoners across the nation is more than 67 percent, the recidivism among ADI clients is a remarkably low 20 percent.

According to Davis, now ADI's Executive Director, people who have paid their debt to society generally desire to return to their families and communities as productive citizens. To be successful in their quest to find and retain jobs, care for any dependant children, and live independently as tax-paying citizens, the barriers to these important goals must be removed. Davis believes ex-prisoners cannot be expected to become contributing members of society without, at the very least, access to affordable housing and legitimate employment.

Child-support payments are a major problem for men and some women while in prison and also when coming out. Davis says that a prisoner working within the institution makes "maybe five dollars a week… [and is]…expected to pay child-support of 35 dollars a week." Because of this, according to Davis, a person may leave the facility owing "thousands of dollars…and then has to begin his regular child support. There is no way he can do both and live."

The staff at Alternative Directions believes the key to a successful life outside of prison is for the prisoners to get a large part of the assistance necessary before they are released. The ADI programs offered inside the prisons give the prisoners a chance to begin changing their lives before they get out. ADI's extensive services both in and out of penal facilities include civil legal assistance and advocacy; mentoring; substance-abuse treatment; education; job-training; parenting classes; counseling; and referrals. These programs are all designed to ease the transition from being a prisoner to becoming a productive member of a community.

In the past year, ADI has served more than 7,680 clients, with over 5,000 men and women receiving some form of assistance with civil legal issues through ADI. Davis also started an "Alternative to Sentencing" program for women found guilty but awaiting the court's decision concerning their sentence. ADI volunteers work to persuade the courts to release some of the women, if justified, into the community pending sentencing. The volunteers communicate to judges the scope of assistance available to these women through Alternative Directions. The program has had a remarkable success rate, with most of the participants completing the program. In addition, ADI provides civil legal workshops in prisons throughout Maryland.

ADI has made a concerted effort over the years to partner with the many legal and advocacy agencies in the area. They are currently partnered with more than 80 service agencies throughout the community. Unfortunately, even with the effective use of partnering, many other correctional facilities go without ADI services due to staff shortages.

If you would like more information about Alternative Directions Inc., contact Jon Moseley, Director of Volunteer Services and Community Outreach, Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland, at (410) 837-9379 or (800) 396-1274.

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Publications : Bar Bulletin: October 2006