High cost of drug sentences in Maryland

I ASKED Donta Ellerbe, a 28-year-old Baltimorean who spent too much of his young life selling heroin in his hometown, what he would like to do for a living, now that he's sworn off the hustle, and this is what he said: "I'm a good people person. I think I would be good at customer service."


I'm guessing he'd be good at sales and marketing, too.

Now, you have to appreciate the irony in that -- a drug dealer looking for a second career in customer relations.

But it's not an outrageous idea. Here's a young man who seems to have a positive outlook, a bright personality and entrepreneurial spirit, someone who served a client base for several years, and lived to tell about it. He was smart enough to have avoided using the dope he sold to others. When I spoke to him the other day, his voice was energetic and clear.

And it struck me as a shame he hadn't stepped to a different platform and boarded a different train back in the day -- or that the state of Maryland hadn't helped him find a new life while we had him in our custody for four years.

Ellerbe got caught up in the street sales of a controlled dangerous substance 10 or 12 years ago, and, with the average annual cost of incarceration per inmate being $24,000, that choice ended up costing taxpayers of Maryland roughly $100,000 for room and board at our penal institutions.

What a waste of Ellerbe's talents.

What a waste of our money.

Too bad this young man hadn't had or made other choices, from the time he was a juvenile.

He says he started selling heroin when he was a student at Dunbar High School, and that enterprise continued for years. Twice, when he went away to prison on drug charges, he came out and started selling again.

What did we expect? We took the corrections out of corrections years ago, and we're only now talking about changing the approach so that people like Ellerbe -- nonviolent, low-level drug offenders (dealers, users and user-dealers) have other choices when they emerge from prison.

After his first couple of stints in Hagerstown and Jessup and with no other job and no one really pushing him to change his life, Ellerbe reverted to what he knew.

Last time he got picked up was winter 2004. The police officer who arrested him found $600 cash in his pocket, Ellerbe says, and the woman standing next to him was holding a small amount of heroin. He got another year in the jail after pleading guilty to a conspiracy charge. He's been out since March, lives at his mother's house in East Baltimore, and goes out on the job-hunt each day with his friend, Marquise Hayes.

Ellerbe hasn't been able to land a job yet because he has two felonies on his record, and he's found that most companies won't hire him because those crimes -- drug possession and conspiracy -- occurred within the last seven years.

What's keeping him from drifting back to heroin sales? The threat of incarceration. "If I get three felonies, I know I'm looking at hard time," he says. "And I can't spend any more time in jail."

Smart young man. He already knows what many in the Maryland court system know, and what on Monday came out of a report by the Justice Policy Institute in Washington -- we're still taking a hard line on drug offenders.

Judges in Maryland are sending relatively low-level drug dealers and addicts to prison at rates comparable to, or higher than, those convicted of violent and serious offenses, the Justice Policy Institute concluded.

"In their current form," the report said, "Maryland's sentencing guidelines recommend harsher penalties in drug cases than cases involving violent offenses; make little distinction between major drug dealers and substance abusers who sell just to feed a habit; and treat behaviors common to addiction -- such as a record of petty crime or probation failures -- more seriously than past violent behavior."

In the case of Donta Ellerbe, the threat of hard time might keep him from returning to heroin sales. Which is a good thing. I can't dismiss the deterrent quality of prison time. It's real.

But for how long will that threat keep a jobless guy like Ellerbe from drifting back into the hustle? As a nonviolent drug offender with a high school education, he should have been sentenced into a program to prepare him for a job years ago.

I've talked to dozens of guys who've done a lot more time than Ellerbe for comparable CDS crimes, and for violating conditions of probation. Many of them were user-dealers, and most of them emerged from years of mindless incarceration and went right back to old habits -- either doing dope or selling it.

But what's the surprise?

If they're not getting what they truly need -- for the addict, intensive treatment and follow-up counseling; for the dealer, a "diversion" into some new career -- then we get what we deserve: a 50 percent recidivism rate and a persistent drug problem in the city and suburbs.

Treatment for drug abuse and job-training and re-entry programs for low-level dealers, like Donta Ellerbe, would be a lot more cost-effective than the expensive lock-'em-up we've been paying for. It doesn't make sense.
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