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Baltimore officials hoping to bring anti-violence program to city

This piece originally appeared in The Baltimore Sun.


City officials are hoping to put together $17 million in funding to bring an anti-violence program to Baltimore that has a track record of connecting high-risk young adults to jobs and keeping them out of jail.

Mayor Catherine Pugh made bringing the Massachusetts-based Roca program to the city a part of her crime plan at a time when violence is surging and a series of high-profile assaults and robberies by juveniles has residents on edge.

The nearly 30-year-old program targets young men, ages 17 to 24. Nearly all of them have been arrested and most have dropped out of high school and used drugs, according to the program’s reports.

“Whatever I have to do to get it up and moving, that’s what I’m going to do,” said Pugh, adding that she is waiting on Gov. Larry Hogan’s office to respond to her request for state money to finalize a four-year funding plan to bring Roca to Baltimore.

The governor did not mention the program in announcing his own crime plan Tuesday. In remarks at a press conference in Baltimore, he said he did not consider educational and job training programs to be part of an immediate crime fighting strategy.

Hogan spokesman Doug Mayer has said state funding for Roca is being “actively considered,” adding that the governor is “aware of the program and its potential benefits.”

Both the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg and Abell foundations have pledged to help pay for the program.

And T. Rowe Price’s philanthropic foundation will provide $1 million, said John Brothers, the foundation’s president. The Baltimore-based money management firm’s charitable arm wanted to support Roca because the program has “generated strong results in the communities where they’ve served.”

Roca — which is rock in Spanish — has worked with thousands of young men since it was founded in 1988, including more than 850 during the last fiscal year, according to program statistics. It aims to disrupt the cycle of poverty and incarceration by connecting young people to positive, intensive relationships with outreach workers and others that help them develop the life, education and employment skills that often lead them to change their behavior.

And data suggest it’s largely successful. Of participants that finish the first half of the four-year intervention program, almost none have subsequent arrests. The program shows similar success with employment rates. While just 15 percent of participants have held jobs before enrolling in Roca, most have and keep one after graduating from the program. Roca also served about 200 young mothers last year with histories of gang involvement, drug and alcohol use, trauma and other issues.

It is unclear what the scope of the program would be in Baltimore, as negotiations are ongoing.

Roca’s director is concerned about the Hogan administration’s support for the program, according to an email obtained by The Baltimore Sun.

The early November email from Molly Baldwin, Roca’s founder and director, to a group of local philanthropic leaders and Roca employees said efforts to bring the program to Baltimore had been ongoing for several years and implied those efforts would not be moving forward.

“It is with sadness that we write you this note,” Baldwin wrote. “For reasons that we do not understand the Maryland Governor’s Office decided on a different path. As you all know the funding was in place and ready to go this summer. Since that time, we have been told different reasons for the funding not being ready now or not in place, but it could be next year, etc...”

Baldwin declined to comment on the email but said she remains open to bringing Roca to Baltimore.

“Violence in Baltimore is tragic and heartbreaking,” said Baldwin, who is a Baltimore native. “Clearly, a very coordinated series of intervention efforts are needed. … We recognize that as with many projects of this magnitude, a significant amount of work, time and patience is required.”

Drew Vetter, who runs the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, said the Pugh administration is still trying to find funding for Roca, which would need a commitment of $17 million over four years from city, state and private sources. He called the process fluid and said the program’s success depends on the state’s participation, both financially and with the cooperation of various state agencies.

“We’re hopeful we will be able to do that,” Vetter said. “It comes down to a question of the partnership between the city and the state, and how the program would be funded in a sustainable way.”

Provisional data from the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services show overall juvenile arrests in Baltimore are down 11 percent but are up in some areas, according to the most recent data available for the arrests of suspects younger than 18. For that group, felony assaults are up 20 percent to 148 this year, from 123 last year. Robberies also went up, to 489 from 448. The number of carjackings inched up to 42 from 40.

The juvenile crime rates follow an overall pattern in the city. Violent crime has spiked since the 2015 riots, and homicides have passed 300 for the third consecutive year.

City police have announced more patrols and a new task force of young officers, among other crime-fighting initiatives.

Marc Schindler, director of the Justice Policy Institute, a criminal justice think tank, said studies show that once young adults turn 25, participation in crime drops, making Roca’s targeted population key.

“The right thing to do is look at the successful, promising interventions,” Schindler said. “If you can get people through that age and keep them on a right track, you will have an impact on violent crime.”

He said funding the program is a “resource investment decision” that paves a better path for young people than sending them to an adult prison.

Jay Ash, secretary of Massachusetts’ office of Housing and Economic Development, worked extensively with Roca while he was city manager of Chelsea, next to Boston, where Roca was first established. The program proved that policing alone could not address crime and violence there, he said.

“The results were dramatic,” he said. “Roca was the difference maker.”

Philanthropic leaders in Baltimore say they’re ready to help pay for Roca.

Sheryl Goldstein, managing director at the Weinberg foundation, said the foundation has long supported Roca by providing operating grants and money for capital projects at the Massachusetts sites. The foundation’s board gave conditional approval to provide $900,000 over three years to Roca’s operations in Baltimore.

“The foundation has always been hopefully optimistic that there would be an opportunity for Roca to replicate its work in Baltimore,” said Goldstein, adding that she is eager to see state and city officials reach an agreement.

Robert Embry, Abell’s president, said stakeholders must take action to address crime in Baltimore, and Roca’s focus on the “hardest cases” makes sense.

“There is a real absence of investment in young offenders,” he said. “There’s a real vacuum, particularly now in Baltimore.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.


This piece originally appeared in The Baltimore Sun.

 

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