Baltimore City residents share their experiences and hopes for the future

Advocates say new report is “a cautionary tale” for the nation’s leaders

BALTIMORE, MD—Teens spending their free time comforting parents who have lost their own children to violence; a woman fighting to break the cycle of addiction while fighting to keep her family together; a man struggling to keep his job while trying to comply with parole reporting requirements; a formerly incarcerated single mother making her daughter proud by getting her degree; and a woman grappling with the murder of her son and forgiving his assailant. These are some of the people who share their experiences in a new report, “Bearing Witness: Baltimore City’s residents give voice to what’s needed to fix the criminal justice system,” released today by the Justice Policy Institute.

In a brilliant blend of narratives and policy recommendations, Bearing Witness lays bare the facts around crime and punishment in Maryland’s largest city, while shining a light on the hope and resiliency of those most affected by decades of failed policies. This report was supported by the Open Society Institute.

Bearing Witness provides a glimpse not only of the impact the criminal justice system has had on communities, but also on the hope and determination of Baltimore City residents,” said Shakti Belway, the author of the report. “Each person’s narrative demonstrates their perseverance in the face of incredible obstacles and their willingness to provide support and opportunity for others in similar circumstances.”

Compared to the rest of Maryland, Baltimore City faces a concentrated impact of the criminal justice system. Although home to roughly 600,000 people, in 2006 the Baltimore Central Booking and Intake Center processed nearly 100,000 arrests and detained 44,825 individuals. In 2008, 61 percent of newly-incarcerated people in Maryland prisons were from Baltimore City. This intense involvement has taken its toll over the years on people, families, and neighborhoods.

“We felt that it was important for people most affected by the criminal justice system to have their voices heard, and a chance to talk about what they believe should be done to change the system for the better,” said Tracy Velázquez, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute. “Their comments and conclusions underscore that more treatment, comprehensive services for families and individuals, and alternatives to incarceration–including those rooted in the principles of restorative justice–benefit people and their communities.”

Bearing Witness, a collaborative effort of community members and organizations, not only documents Baltimore City’s experiences, it also serves as a cautionary tale about the consequences of relying on the criminal justice system to solve social problems.The report identifies five areas that are critical to Baltimore City becoming a safer and healthier community:

• Women and families have unique needs. When a woman is sent to prison, her entire family also feels the punishment. Treatment, interventions, and wrap-around services should be designed with the needs of women and their families in mind.

• Parole and probation serve as a revolving door that sends people back to prison. The parole and probation system is too focused on catching people who are not meeting the conditions of release. Instead, these systems should concentrate on ensuring that people get the support they need to stay out of prison.

• A public health approach to drug addiction would eliminate the practice of sending people to prison who, in reality, need treatment. Community-based treatment options that include the family and are available on demand would make this approach a reality.

• Expanding opportunities and investing in solutions will preserve public safety and strengthen Baltimore City for years to come. Rather than putting money into prisons and the criminal justice system, the community would benefit from stronger education and re-entry programs, job training, youth-oriented programs, and other community-based initiatives.

• Restorative justice and community conferencing are effective and less costly alternatives to incarceration. The criminal justice system, as it is currently designed, does not meet the complex needs of victims, the community or the people who caused harm.

For more information about Bearing Witness or to schedule an interview, contact Lawanda Johnson at (202) 558-7974 x308 or [email protected].

# # #