Baltimore Activists Cry Out for Criminal Justice Reform Ahead of New Administration

by: Deborah Bailey Special to the AFRO
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The Open Society Institute of Baltimore on Oct. 22 focused on criminal Justice reform at the second of three half-day summits held in downtown Baltimore this past week. About 100 attendees, representing a cross section of Baltimore life offered their perspectives on breathing new life into a broken criminal justice system. Ex-offenders, parents, teachers, lawyers, volunteer and professional advocates all believed that more room is needed for community voices for justice to work for all in the city.  The Open Society is an organization focused on equality, fairness, and justice founded by billionaire George Soros.

Participants deliberate at Open Society's Solutions Summit on Justice Reform. (Courtesy photo)
Participants deliberate at Open Society’s Solutions Summit on Justice Reform. (Courtesy photo)

Tara Huffman, Director of The Open Society Institute’s Criminal and Juvenile Justice Program said that we have witnessed a constellation of activism “creating the possibility for substantive change in Baltimore.  “The Open Society Institute is serving as one vehicle to capture citizen voice in making the changes needed to move Baltimore forward,” she said.

“There are so many opportunities for reform – we’ll have a new mayor, eight new members of the city council and a lot of fresh energy,” she said. “We’ve got this DOJ investigation that’s probably going to result in a consent decree; we have all of this uprising from people in the community demanding change around policing and other things.”  Huffman said.

The goal of the Solution Summits is for “people in the community to come together and get some consensus around a limited number of recommendations that we can present to the mayor and city council and say this is where we think we as a city should put our energy for the next 12 to 24 months, Huffman said.  “If we do these things we think we can get Baltimore City to a place of real progress,” Huffman told the AFRO.

Participants were cautiously hopeful, but not thoroughly convinced, that the Open Society Institute could make the case with the incoming Mayor and City Council for the level of substantive change needed to get Baltimore moving forward.

Renee Hopkins, a mother of three young adult sons came because she wants to see safe streets for her sons and two nephews – all in their 20’s.  She was hoping that political leaders, police or someone who represents the justice system would be on hand to hear her concerns.

“I think that they’re putting some things in place for us to try and set the record straight”, said Hopkins.   “But honestly speaking, the mayor should have been here, some people who are politically tied to these issues that we’re dealing with is what we should see,” she says.

Huffman said the Mayor has been invited to the final Solutions Summit, an all-day forum on Dec. 10, the day following the swearing in ceremony for the Mayor and City Council members who will be elected on Nov. 8.

“We’ve reached out to the mayoral candidates and we’ve made it known to the city council candidates.” Huffman said. “Even if they haven’t participated in these half-day summits, we’re hoping the entire city administration will participate in the December 10th summit,” she said.

Damien Haussling of Baltimore Corps thought The Open Society Institute could think about more innovative ways to connect with a wider scope of the community.   “I’m wondering why we couldn’t have had this forum in a church or community center in West Baltimore,” Haussling said referring to a recent research paper naming Sandtown-Winchester as the Maryland community with the highest percentage of ex-offenders.  “Accessibility is a concern,” he said.

“The recommendations that we are getting from this forum are only given based on those who are here. What about those who weren’t here? I don’t think this is a representative sample of our city,” Haussling said.

Andre, a re-entering citizen from West Baltimore, thought the Open Society organizers had good intentions, but is concerned that the forums will get bogged down with “too much talk and not enough walk” to make tangible differences in re-entry reform.

“Reform and re-entry needs a lot of help and we need a lot of work and not a lot of talk, we need a lot of action. I’m hopeful, but I feel there needs to be more involvement from our inner neighborhoods,” Andre said.

Gregory Carpenter, an Open Society Institute’s organizer for the day’s event, said that he understands concerns about having more voices from the re-entry community at the table. He vouched for the agenda but acknowledged that concerns for persons involved with the criminal justice system are constantly evolving.

“I think we’re talking about the real core issues. But there may be one or two that we have not identified. These issues are constantly changing,” Carpenter said.

Criminal Justice Reform was the second of three half-day issue forums sponsored by the Open Society Institute to develop an agenda for the Mayor Elect and City Council.  The next half-day issue forum will focus on Jobs and is scheduled for Oct. 29 from 9 a.m. to noon at the War Memorial Building in Baltimore.  The complete agenda will be presented to the community at a final all-day forum on December 10.

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