Gallagher, Evelius & Jones, LLP, attorney Tracy Steedman has never been afraid of heights, though she’s never been “a fan” of them, either. So when she found herself on an elevated ropes course last summer, deep in the 300 acres of Genesee Valley, an outdoor learning center in Baltimore County, Steedman relied on the support of her MSBA Leadership Academy Fellows to successfully complete the expedition.
“It’s an interesting thing to trust people to hold you up,” Steedman admits.
Despite her trepidation, the risky-adventure provided more reward than any “Team Building Exercise” t-shirt could offer. The bonds of trust the 2007-08 Leadership Academy class established in the foliage on that mid-July afternoon fused the trusses with which the Fellows created, planned and presented Beyond the Bars: A Symposium on Reentry in Maryland on May 20, 2008, at Westminster Hall in Baltimore.
“It really was a group effort,” Terrah Dews, ’07-’08 Fellow, said on arranging their public service project. “Wherever there was a need, people filled in. Where others were stronger, they pulled to help those struggling.”
That mentality also served as the lifeblood of their creation. According to the Leadership Academy, recidivism – an offender’s repeated relapse into crime – in Maryland has nestled above the 50 percent mark over the last few years. The Fellows, ever searching to help those struggling, felt that their combined powers could help combat this disconcerting statistic; however, there was one voiced concern.
“We thought, ‘No one wants to help ex-offenders. How are we going to get money for this?’” said Steedman. The group’s worries were quickly debunked when a slew of contributors including criminal defense firms, MSBA and the University of Maryland School of Law donated money and services to the project.
Armed with the funds, the Leadership Academy proceeded to invite representatives from governmental and local agencies that focus on reentry. Organizations like Alternative Directions, Baltimore City Mayor’s Office of Employment Development, and U.S. Department of Labor Center for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives were equally educating and learning throughout the day-long symposium. “The purpose of the day was to get people talking,” said Matthew Tidball, ’07-’08 Fellow, “and from what we’ve heard, there has been a lot of dialogue.”
The discussion was centered on how to help “returning Marylanders,” a term coined by Charles “Jeff” Beeson, former Executive Director of the Maryland Correctional Enterprises Management Council and speaker at the symposium. He showed the audience how this demographic is not hidden from their everyday lives by pointing out that the furniture in the neighboring Thurgood Marshall Law Library and adjoining classrooms was made behind bars.
Though Baltimore Sun columnist and WYPR talking head Dan Rodricks, the keynote speaker, took the stage an hour-and-a-half earlier, his statements mirrored that of Beeson. “Companies are bound to come across someone [in Baltimore] with a criminal past,” said Rodricks, who at first seemed an odd choice as keynote speaker, but soon divulged his tie-in to the topic.
Since the summer of 2005, Rodricks’ office phone line has been a constant ring with ex-offenders calling to find jobs that will take them in, and the Sun writer couldn’t be happier. Three years ago, Rodricks used his column space to plead with local drug dealers to stop killing each other and take up a reputable occupation. He included his work number towards the end of the article and told the offenders to call him if they needed help finding a job. The local critics panned “Dear Drug Dealer”. They considered it deadline-induced fodder used to fill a few inches of newspaper. But Rodricks was sincere in his call addressing this “sleeping giant of a story.” The city street dwellers were serious, too. Over 6,500 offenders have called to this day, and there is no end in sight.
That everlasting horizon is partly due to the devoted individuals that amassed in Westminster Hall less than a month ago. Every person in attendance wanted to see the offenders get more than “$40 and a bus” upon release. Rodricks, who has been actively fighting to aid released offenders since his June 9, 2005, article, told the symposium this was the “most rewarding period of my life,” and continued, “You’re here ’cause you recognize the [recidivism] problem.”
Sadly, though, the main reason that Rodricks’ and countless other rehabilitative organizations’ phones ring off the hook is because there is no shortage of offenders reentering the state. According to the keynote, 9,000-15,000 prisoners are released each year in Maryland, half of which head straight to Baltimore City, and half of that are back in custody within three years.
Maryland State Senator Lisa A. Gladden (D-41) has seen this all too often as a concurrent Assistant Public Defender that visits prisons three times a week to handle felony violations of parole. Her unique perspective has opened her eyes to a system that needs to tackle rehabilitation while the offenders are still incarcerated. “We need for those who go in to come out as whole as they can,” she said at the Leadership Academy’s symposium. “Reentry is not a new thing.”
Indeed, reentry is far from new, but a common thought at the May meeting was that rehabilitation has been overlooked, or even ignored, by previous generations. Gone is the “lock them up and throw away the key” mantra that dominated the 1970s and ’80s. In today’s society, everybody is integral, said Gladden.
Like the Fellows on the ropes course, a group effort is needed to succeed against recidivism. Said Constance Parker, Administrator for the Maryland Reentry Initiative, “It takes a village to raise a child.”