Pubdate: Wed, 21 Oct 2015
Source: Baltimore Sun (MD)
Copyright: 2015 The Baltimore Sun Company
Author: E.R. Shipp
Note: E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary, is the 
journalist in residence at Morgan State University's School of Global 
Journalism and Communication. Her column runs every other Wednesday.


Headlines like those in The New York Times ("U.S. to Release 6,000 
Inmates From Prisons") and in this newspaper ("Hundreds of 
Marylanders will be among federal drug prisoners released early") are 
enough to add to the jitters of a city already grappling with an 
explosion of violence.

But hold your horses.

The U. S. Sentencing Commission is essentially admitting that tens of 
thousands of men and women should never have been punished so 
harshly. They were victims of the hysteria of a war on drugs that 
disproportionately targeted blacks and Latinos. Among the 13,000 
federal inmates who are eligible for reduced sentences, including the 
6,000 whose release will begin at the end of the month, 72 percent 
are black or Latino, and a majority have done time under draconian 
drug laws. They will be released in waves; some are already in 
transitional programs, like the 37 in a facility operated by 
Volunteers for America Chesapeake.

No one who has seriously studied the situation believes we are in for 
an avalanche of crime by the men and women set to return to familiar 
turf in already struggling neighborhoods like 
Sandtown-Winchester-Harlem Park, which, for many of us, may as well 
be another world.

As The Sun reported in May, Sandtown's unemployment is 21 percent, 
compared to a city average of 11 percent.

Annual income is slightly more than $22,000, compared to a city 
average of more than $37,000. Life expectancy is 65.3 years, compared 
to a city average of 71.8. And homicides are 45 per 10,000 compared 
to a city average of about 21. A neighborhood like Roland Park is 
unlikely to be home for any of these returning felons.

Unemployment there was about 3 percent; income was more than $90,000; 
life expectancy was 83.1 years and homicides were 4.1 per 10,000.

The temptation for many of us, then, is not to care. So long as crime 
and mayhem remain confined to certain parts of town, everybody else 
can tune it out, grow numb to the numbers and live as though their 
neighborhoods and the Inner Harbor define the city. But think about 
another type of temptation. Sometimes the proximity to such lush 
living entices the have-nots with little hope for legitimate means of 
gaining a foothold.

Returnees without support systems in place may find that the street 
life that ensnared them in the first place is an irresistible siren song.

"The deck is stacked against these people.

It's called 'the system,' " says Christopher Ervin, an advocate for 
criminal justice reform.

Know this: These men and women are not "getting their freedom back," 
as I have heard some people assert.

Mr. Ervin puts it this way: "They still cannot vote in the state of 
Maryland. Even after they finish parole or probation, they will not 
be able to serve on a jury or legally own a firearm - the cornerstone 
rights of citizenship in the United States of America, voting, jury 
service and the right to protect yourself and your property." He, 
like Michelle Alexander, author of "The New Jim Crow: Mass 
Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness," make a compelling case 
that these people have been ensnared in the "vast new system of 
racial and social control" that sprang from a war on drugs that began 
in the Nixon years.

As civil rights advances made blatant racist practices untenable, she 
argues, "rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system 
to label people of color criminals, and then engage in all the 
practices that we supposedly left behind.

Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in 
nearly all the ways in which it was once legal to discriminate 
against African-Americans."

There is a groundswell of support for overhauling sentencing laws 
that have made the United States the warden for a fourth of the 
world's prison population. The decision by the U. S. Sentencing 
Commission to reduce sentences for drug offenders is but a step.

But while this battle takes place on the main stage, the men and 
women returning home will find some services, like those offered by 
Volunteers for America Chesapeake, the Maryland Safe and Sound 
Campaign and the Center for Urban Families. There are not enough nor 
are they easily found.

I will have more to say about these services in a future column.

Suffice it to say that opening prison doors and saying "Go home" 
without supporting community and family networks and without legal 
reforms that clear a path to restoration of full citizenship is a 
guarantee that many of these releases will just be furloughs.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom