Members of the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland convened on Feb. 25 in Annapolis to discuss various citizen concerns about law enforcement, including community policing, police use of force and prison and reentry at their first Law and Justice Day event.
The open discussion was comprised of two panels—Policing in Maryland and Prison and Reentry. The event was headed by Del. Aisha N. Braveboy (D-Prince George’s), chair of the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland and Del. Jill P. Carter, chair, LBCM Law & Justice Committee.
As the hearing commenced on the topic of “Policing in Maryland,” panelists discussed issues such as police use of force and community policing. Members of the panel included Baltimore City Police Lt. Col. Melvin Russell, who told the audience that he grew up in East Baltimore; Maryland State Police Col. Marcus Brown; and Ricardo Flores, government relations director for the Maryland Office of the Public Defender.
Russell told the audience that he makes himself “accessible” to the community he serves in an effort to be more proactive in reaching out to the people his officers work with. He said the philosophy that has police working more closely with citizens is paying off in reduced crime.
“It’s because of what we were doing differently,” he said. “We were talking to the community. We were building bridges. We gave the community a voice because the community is the voice.”
The three-hour event drew few citizens. However, the legislators and law enforcement personnel interacted extensively, discussing during the first panel ways to improve communications between officers and in the second panel, an effort to “Ban the Box,” to remove from job applications the box that requires men and women convicted of crimes to tell employers that before they are interviewed.
But the discussion was not always positive. Dominique Stevenson, director of the “Friend of a Friend” program, which helps men and women who are returning offenders to find jobs, said she has witnessed police misconduct and questions whether an element of trust can be established between police and the community.
“Riding through Baltimore, I don’t see community-based police. I see young men walking down their steps and the police in an unmarked car and they pause,” she said. “He’s immediately a suspect coming out of the house.”
Dr. Marvin L. “Doc” Cheatham, Sr., the political action chair for the Maryland State Conference of NAACP branches, said community leaders need to find more ways “to connect with the police.”
He added, “Then, we have to use our organizations to hold them accountable.”
The focus of the second panel was providing access to job opportunities for ex-offenders and providing them the resources to sustain themselves once they leave prison.
Walter M. Lomax, founder and executive director of Mandala Enterprise, which advocates for offenders and ex-offenders, told those gathered that there is little assistance available for men and women leaving prison.
“The reality is your son or your daughter can be arrested at anytime and find themselves in the criminal justice system and they will find themselves locked out economically, politically, and socially,” he said.
Mark P. Matthews Sr., founder of Clean Slate America, which specializes in criminal record expongement and policy, advocacy and changing laws regarding ex-offenders, said he regularly interacts with men and women who have returned home with good intentions only to lose hope when they are shut out because of their criminal history.
“No matter how much experience one has, no matter how much training, no matter how much education, a criminal record is a detriment,” he said. “When is enough, enough? When do you get that promise to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?”
Panelists said ex-offenders going through the reentry process are at risk of being homeless. They struggle with re-assimilation. The inability to find jobs can lead them to reoffend, Stevens said.
Members of the Maryland Black Legislative Caucus discussed creating initiatives to urge major corporations such as Johns Hopkins to employ ex-offenders. Russell said companies should consider bringing in workers who have served their time, instead of outsiders because they would be more vested in the community.
The “Ban the Box” bill, which would restrict access and inquiries into the criminal history of an applicant for employment until the applicant has been provided an opportunity for an interview, has been approved by the Senate, but has stalled in a House of Delegates Appropriations Committee. House Bill 1006, which is Bill 70 in the Senate, sponsored by Del. Curt Anderson (D-Baltimore) and Sen. Verna Jones Rodwell (D-Baltimore), would allow individuals to petition the courts to shield certain non-violent misdemeanor convictions. The measure is scheduled to be discussed in the House Judiciary Committee on March 7.