Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

C. Fraser Smith: Hogan’s overtures to Baltimore

Republican Gov. Larry Hogan wants to ease “collateral damage” suffered by ex-offenders.

He might even support easing penalties for some minor crimes.

No, he’s not planning to change his registration to Independent or Democrat.

His motivation here may be largely financial. Imprisonment costs money.

You remember that he killed the big-ticket Red Line transit system. Too expensive, he said. The plan’s $1 billion dollar downtown Baltimore tunnel was emblematic of his “boondoggle” charge.

Moving quickly to shore up his conservative bona fides, his Red Line decision freed up cash to thank suburban and rural voters. Even so, even after recognizing the political realities, the decision was a blow to the state’s struggling but still most important city.

Now, though, the governor seems determined to show the citizenry his non-ideological bent, his problem-solving pragmatic side.

He’s taking on vexing Baltimore problems in ways Democrats haven’t adequately addressed – vacant houses earlier this week, for example.

It’s tantalizing. One is tempted to call it a breath of fresh air.

(Are we seeing a bit of the Nixon-in-China effect? Democrats couldn’t or didn’t make any overtures to the communist nation’s then-surging economy but a Republican could.)

We find Hogan also addressing the corrosive problem of ex-offenders. The numbers in both cases define problems that have conjured words like hopeless, unaffordable and not in this life.

Vacants? As many as 40,000.

Ex-offenders? Up to 12,000 come back to Baltimore from state prisons every year. They come back with almost no prospect of contributing – or staying “outside.” Employers dismiss people with records. Many offenders want to work, but they’re unemployable. Bosses won’t take chances.

The General Assembly’s “second chance” bill last year will help. Maybe quite a lot. Some 400,000 Marylanders have records for relatively minor offenses. The surprisingly large number came out during hearings on the bill. For them, the record can be shielded under the new law. Employers won’t see them.

Ex-offenders with more serious offenses are an even worse problem. Freddie Gray fell into this category.

Hogan plans some further initiative here.

What Maryland needs, I have written before, is a Re-entry Department, a cell-to-society agency to deal with an enormous problem. Without help, survival on the “outside” has been impossible for many. One in three ex-offenders is back in jail within 3 years.
Some readers are saying to themselves at this moment: No, please, not another government bureaucracy.

I understand, but did I mention it’s an economy measure? Imprisonment costs $30,000 or so per person, per year. More, actually, since people in jail can’t work, can’t contribute – even as their communities move toward the humanitarian catastrophe of Sandtown-Winchester, where Freddie Gray lived.

The governor has ordered a review of state rules that make it difficult if not impossible for ex-offenders to find work and stay out of prison.

He wants to eliminate regulations that handicap ex-offenders. Some of these rules make it hard or impossible for people with criminal records to get professional licenses or student loans, for example. Could these “collateral consequences” be removed or eased?

A work group he established will be led by Christopher Shank, a Republican former state senator who runs the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention. His task fits well with the “prevention” part of his job.

Shank observes there are a lot of restrictions that make sense, and the commission will likely keep many of them.

He told The Sun he’s been struck by the sheer volume of restrictions on people who have misdemeanor drug possessions that could linger on their records for decades if not forever.

Democrats have been saying this, according House Speaker Michael E. Busch, a Democrat. He thinks the General Assembly session that begins next week may bring many proposals for helping former offenders or softening penalties on drug crimes.

“People are realizing that incarceration for nonviolent drug offenders has not been effective” and takes a toll on society, Busch told The Sun. “The irony is that Republicans from the national level on down have started talking about it.”

Republican governors in particular. They have to balance their budgets – just as Hogan does.

C. Fraser Smith is host of Inside Maryland politics on 88.1 WYPR. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. His email address is [email protected]