At an annual State of the City address this spring, Mayor Brandon Scott touted the ground his administration has covered on what he calls his “top priority”: reducing Baltimore’s shootings and homicides, in part through a $50 million investment in preventive approaches to violent crime.

Among the achievements featured in Scott’s speech this April was the launch of an ambitious new initiative known as “Returning Citizens Behind the Wall,” designed to connect incarcerated people with jobs doing manual labor for the city at $15 an hour. The program was originally budgeted for $12.7 million of Baltimore’s federal pandemic aid and aimed to help nearly 3,000 people approaching the end of incarceration transition back into society.

But the city is now reducing the scope of the program, a partnership with the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, because not as many people are eligible for the program as initially anticipated.

Since a “soft launch” this spring, Returning Citizens Behind the Wall has helped an initial cohort of 22 people, compared to the more than 900 originally planned for this fiscal year. At the same time, the city has cut funding for Returning Citizen’s Behind the Wall to about $5.5 million, with a goal of expanding to serve 500 people over each of the next two fiscal years.

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The reduction in size of the contract between the city and state corrections department was scheduled to go before the city spending board on Wednesday.

In a May interview, Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement Director Shantay Jackson said the reentry program was only scaled down because of revised information on the number of incarcerated people who are eligible to participate. While she noted original plans were to serve 2,775 people over three years, or 925 per year, she said her office later learned that only 500 people per year would qualify.

Jackson’s office moved about $2.2 million budgeted for the program to help fund a recently announced $5 million commitment for the violence intervention initiative Safe Streets, while the remaining money — about $5 million — was returned to the mayor’s pandemic aid office for reallocation.

Mayor Brandon Scott, center, flanked by Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison and MONSE Director Shantay Jackson, speaks during a year-end press conference at City Hall on Wednesday, December 21. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

The multimillion-dollar revision to Returning Citizens Behind the Wall, one of many new initiatives the Scott administration is pursuing with Baltimore’s pandemic aid, could prove to be an early example of other changes to come in the spending strategy for the $641 million American Rescue Plan Act windfall.

In recent weeks, the director of Scott’s stimulus office has made clear that the administration is prepared to pull back pandemic aid money from projects that don’t look like they will come together by federal deadlines and reallocate the funds to other things. Baltimore has until the end of 2026 to spend all of its federal stimulus, but — more urgently — until the end of 2024 to have it all earmarked.

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Part of a nearly $50 million investment of federal aid Scott has put towards a public health approach to violent crime, the reentry program is designed to connect hundreds of incarcerated people within 18 months of their release dates with cleaning and greening jobs through the city Department of Recreation and Parks.

Jackson stressed the importance of the city providing career paths and resources to incarcerated people returning to Baltimore, and explained that, in addition to work, Returning Citizens Behind the Wall provides participants with career training and counseling in financial management and conflict resolution, among other services.

Of the $15 paid to participants per hour, they receive $3.12 while still incarcerated, while the remaining money is withheld until their release, according to the program contract.

Recent research on similar rehabilitation programs around the country has shown that providing proper supports and career pathways for people reentering the community after incarceration can reduce chances of recidivism while helping them get back on their feet after long periods behind bars.

Jackson said initial estimates about the number of people eligible for the program were based on conversations with the state department of corrections during planning stages. But upon further investigation, the city and corrections department found that the number of qualifying people was smaller than they had originally expected. Jackson stressed that her agency recognizes the need to assess circumstances and adapt, and added that the public safety office doesn’t expect significant changes to its portfolio of pandemic aid projects.

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“It’s always going to be important to [the mayor’s public safety office], that we do our due diligence,” she said, “that our partners and our agency feel comfortable with what we’re communicating to Baltimore about what we’re truly going to be able to deliver and why.”

Mark Vernarelli, a spokesperson for the department of corrections, said many factors determine whether an incarcerated person is eligible for the city’s new reentry program. Participants have to be vetted based on behavior and security risk, while some people might not be able to participate because of other obligations they need to fulfill before release, he said. Still others who are eligible might elect to sign up for separate work-release programs or jobs within the system.

Returning Citizens Behind the Wall also exclusively serves Baltimore residents who are set for release from the Baltimore City Correctional Center, Vernarelli said, a factor that limits eligibility. The Maryland corrections department released a total of about 1,200 people into Baltimore City in 2021, according to a state-managed dashboard, a population that has declined by close to half in recent years.

On top of the millions the Scott administration has allocated for its reentry partnership with the state corrections department, the mayor’s public safety office has allocated a much smaller share of its federal stimulus infusion for grants to a handful of nonprofits focused on transitioning incarcerated people back into the community. The office has so far divided a total of $250,000 in reentry grants between seven organizations and has plans to award a slate of additional small-dollar grants for similar work, according to line items shared with the City Council last month.

While it’s not clear how Scott’s wide-ranging plans for Baltimore’s $641 million in federal aid could otherwise change, new information about the large-scale reentry program come as his administration has recently started assessing possible changes to its spending plan.

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Mayor’s Office of Recovery Programs Director Shamiah Kerney, whose team oversees distribution and compliance of the federal aid package, told City Council members during recent budget hearings that there may need to be some “very tough conversations with agencies” about re-prioritizing money soon, given the end-of-2024 deadline to lock in the city’s spending plan.

In a statement through Scott spokesman Bryan Doherty, the pandemic aid office did not say how the remaining $5 million from the reentry program is being reallocated, reiterating that the city is in the process of evaluating rates of spending across its portfolio.

Jackson, who plans to step down from her role in the mayor’s public safety office at the end of the month, said that while she wants services supporting reentry to reach as many people as possible, she also has to prioritize stewardship of the city’s money.

“There’s no way that I’m going to tell you that I wouldn’t want to make sure that every single person in Baltimore City — whether incarcerated or not — had gainful employment,” she said.