A key piece of Mayor Brandon Scott’s approach to stemming the city’s high rate of violent crimes has been investing in resources for returning citizens incarcerated in local jails or state prisons. But the city’s flagship program to accomplish that work has gotten off to a slow start.

Since a “soft launch” in the spring of last year, the “Returning Citizens Behind the Wall” program, which connects incarcerated people with jobs doing manual labor for the city’s recreation and parks department at $15 an hour, has helped only 103 participants, according to an update from the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement provided to the City Council’s public safety committee on Wednesday.

That puts the program, which is funded by the federal pandemic aid, well short of its stated goal of 500 participants per fiscal year — a goal that had already been revised down from the 900 participants per fiscal year that were initially planned.

In her update to the City Council, Stefanie Mavronis, director of the mayor’s public safety office, said she wants to expand the re-entry program to hire returning citizens who would work at other city agencies besides recreation and parks. She also wants to expand the program’s offerings for career training and financial counseling.

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But the public safety office appears to be limited by the number of people available to do the case management for program participants. To that end, Mavronis told City Council members that the agency is pursuing funding from the U.S. Department of Labor to hire additional staff — the office currently has just one re-entry coordinator.

“We are being as proactive as we can,” Mavronis said. “We know that the work is bigger than one re-entry coordinator. And while we are grateful to be able to jump-start that work with the staff that we have now, certainly, if we’re going to be able to do this at the level that we imagine, we’re going to need additional support.”

In response to questions from The Baltimore Banner, the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement said that the goal of 500 participants per fiscal year was “based on data about the number of incarcerated people eligible for work release who plan to return home to Baltimore City.”

“As we continue to build our capacity and drive recruitment in the initiative, we are also actively assessing the participant goal in partnership with the Mayor’s Office of Recovery Programs,” said spokesperson Jack French.

The re-entry program’s lower-than-expected enrollment comes as the Scott administration continues to warn agencies that changes could be coming to the city’s pandemic aid spending plan. Baltimore has been slow to spend the $641 million it received through the federal American Rescue Plan Act, and though the city has until the end of 2026 to use the windfall, it faces a more urgent, end-of-2024 deadline to have all of the money earmarked.

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Shamiah Kerney, director of the Mayor’s Office of Recovery Programs, has signaled for months that meeting those deadlines could require pulling money back from slow-developing projects and directing it elsewhere, reiterating earlier this month that meeting the obligation deadline “is for sure going to be a challenge.” The pandemic aid director told council members that she expects to have a projects assessment completed by the end of March, after which the city could begin to publicize changes to its spending plan.

The city had spent just under 30% of its $641 million as of the end of December, according to a January report to the City Council, while Kerney said this month that just over half of the city’s millions had been earmarked. Scott granted his public safety office $45 million from the federal allotment, and the agency had spent 22% of it by the close of last year.

Mavronis’ update to the City Council came during a hearing on a bill proposed by Councilmember James Torrence that would form an Office of Returning Citizens, which would be an independent wing within the mayor’s public safety office.

Baltimore sees more residents transitioning out of incarceration than any other jurisdiction in Maryland, and the West Baltimore councilman, whose parents were both formerly incarcerated people, said the cause is personal for him.

“There are opportunities we need to provide people, but we also need to make sure those opportunities are the rule and not the exception, so that’s what this office is about,” Torrence said Wednesday.

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Mavronis welcomed the proposal, saying it would help the public safety office coordinate and expand its work with returning citizens. The public safety committee unanimously advanced the measure, sending it to the full City Council.

The Returning Citizens Behind The Wall program connects with people who are in their last months of incarceration. An earlier version of this article mischaracterized who participates in the program.