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West Baltimore offers vivid reminder of failed mass incarceration policy

Analysis: Experts say high imprisonment rate, driven by mandatory minimum sentencing laws, has devastated communities

BALTIMORE — The West Baltimore neighborhood of Sandtown-Winchester, where Freddie Gray was arrested and fatally injured, is by all obvious metrics a neglected community. Abandoned row houses and vacant lots dot this area, which is marked by high unemployment and low-performing schools — yet Maryland’s state budget allocates $17 million each year just to this single neighborhood. That money goes not to job training, family services or education, but solely to incarceration.

Three percent of Sandtown-Winchester’s nearly 15,000 residents are in state prison at an annual cost of $37,000 per person, according to a joint report by the Justice Policy Institute and the Prison Policy Initiative (PDF). The bordering neighborhood of Mondawmin, where a night of looting and arson took place after Gray’s funeral, has a similarly high incarceration rate. 

The U.S. has been jailing its citizens at unprecedented rates since Ronald Reagan’s war on drugs took hold in the late 1980s. Fueled by mandatory sentencing minimums for drug possession and an explosion of prison building under the Clinton administration in the 1990s, the emphasis on locking people up rather than providing treatment has had a devastating effect in places like Sandtown-Winchester and Mondawmin.

Neil Franklin has seen this firsthand. Executive Director of nonprofit Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), Franklin spent a 34-year career with the Maryland State and Baltimore City police departments waging the war on drugs. “In 2005 under [mayor] Martin O’Malley’s zero tolerance leadership, we arrested 108,000 people in Baltimore City in one year … that’s unbelievable in a city with a population of 620,000. Most of those arrests have come from these particular areas,” he said. Noting that the vast majority of those arrested eventually return to these same economically depressed communities, often with gang affiliations fostered while in prison, he says, “Incarceration endangers communities.”

The problem, said Todd Clear, criminal justice expert and provost of Rutgers University-Newark is, “We’re willing to spend a lot of money on these places but we’re not willing to spend any money in these places.” Clear attributed this to what he sees as the myth that incarceration increases public safety. “We believed very deeply that larger prison populations reduced crime. We’ve now learned that the relationship between the number of people behind bars and the size of the crime rate is very small. We have the same national crime rate as when the prison population was 200,000, but now have eight times the number of prisoners.”

Reform advocates argue that this mass incarceration policy has not only failed to deliver on its promise of safer communities, it’s actually making things much worse. “The mandatory minimums took parole out of the process so individuals now coming to prison with a 10 year sentence have got to serve 9 years, 8 1/2 years, whereas before they probably served maybe 36 months,” says Greg Carpenter, a former Sandtown-Winchester resident who manages an inmate re-entry program in the city. “It leaves these little boys without a father, without a role model,” he added.

Massive spending on incarceration has overwhelmed both public and private efforts to rehabilitate communities. For years, Sandtown-Winchester received federal empowerment zone money and local philanthropic funding to provide job training and affordable housing. Marc Schindler, Executive Director of Washington think thank the Justice Policy Initiative, said however that, “While they’re making all these well-intentioned investments in that community, at the same time they’re spending $17 million on incarceration, literally at cross purposes.” The result is continued rates of high unemployment and substandard living conditions. In Sandtown-Winchester, Schindler says his research found, “The life expectancy is 16 years shorter than in a [more affluent] community just a few miles away. That’s, like, Third World.”

As a night of looting and confrontation with police highlighted, community relations with law enforcement have deteriorated to dangerous levels. Franklin sees this as an inevitable byproduct of the war on drugs. “Law enforcement has been placed in a very difficult situation,” he said, “charged with enforcing these drug policies that are unenforceable. In an attempt to enforce these … zero tolerance policies you very quickly become an enemy of the community. Because the only way you can do the job is to be searching people day in and day out, arresting people for these low-level drug crimes.”

The answer, reform advocates say, is to redirect significant portions of the money taxpayers are now spending on incarceration into more effective and proactive programs aimed at developing a stronger, safer community. “Sandtown needs a lot of things,” says Peter Wagner, head of the Prison Policy Initiative think tank. “It needs jobs. It needs safe housing. It needs transportation. If you stop wasting money on mass incarceration you do two things: You free up money to spend it somewhere else and you stop doing damage that you need to make other investments to fix.”

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