The rioting and violence we have seen in Ferguson, Mo., and in Baltimore do not just stem from the real or perceived circumstances surrounding the deaths of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray.
They are also the fruit of decades-old failures to talk honestly about the cycle of crime and incarceration, and to bring about or sustain reforms that give everyone a shot to work hard and pursue their dreams.
It's not that policymakers or citizens haven't tried, or aren't trying, to provide solutions. But we haven't always seen the will to follow through.
In Maryland, more than a decade ago, Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich promised and delivered some important criminal justice reforms, long before it was common for Republicans to advocate them. It was a dramatic shift — and one that other leaders in the state did not fully support or fund.
Ehrlich increased funding for public defenders, to improve legal representation for the poor who were accused. He was highly critical of then-Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley's zero-tolerance policing policy, which resulted in 108,000 people — one sixth of the city's population — being arrested in one year. "That's simply mass arrests," Ehrlich would later say in a debate against O'Malley, "simply creating criminal records for people who have done nothing more than walking down the street." He recognized that the warehousing of nonviolent offenders was counterproductive and did not make communities safer, but exacerbated old wounds.
In Baltimore this week, these criticisms seem prescient.
Ehrlich also worked to improve education, understanding the long-term connection between the lack of employment opportunities and crime. He increased K-12 education funding by a record 43 percent. His education superintendent's attempt to overhaul the worst performing schools in the Baltimore City public schools system was stopped by then-Mayor O'Malley and the state legislature.
As governor, Ehrlich launched what was called the "RESTART" strategy — a plan to provide nonviolent offenders substance abuse treatment, education, employment training and other so-called wraparound services to help them become responsible members of the community. He implemented a historic executive clemency initiative to keep people on the path to redemption, provide hope and encouragement to persons involved in the justice system, and empower people to do more for their families and communities. He also won passage of substance abuse diversion legislation, to reduce recidivism and make it easier for individuals arrested for nonviolent drug crimes to obtain treatment instead of serve time in jail.
These reforms didn't yield overnight changes, but they represented an opportunity to turn the page. O'Malley would rail against most of them. As Ehrlich's successor, he put the brakes on the clemency initiative in particular, which in my view was one of Ehrlich's most important achievements in building hope and restoring faith in the criminal justice system.
We don't know what Baltimore would be like if we had four more years of Ehrlich. And we need to be frank about how far we must still go to put the vestiges of segregation behind us. But in today's wide embrace by Democrats and Republicans of many of the reforms Ehrlich led — and which I had the privilege of helping to make a reality — we now know one other thing. His was the criminal justice path to a better and brighter future.
For the citizens of Baltimore and Maryland, and for our country, to take back our cities, strongly support our brave men and women in law enforcement, and make certain that all lives matter, let's hope we now have the political will to see the job done the right way.
Chrysovalantis P. Kefalas is a former speechwriter to Attorney General Eric Holder, and former deputy legal counsel to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr. Thinking of submitting an op-ed to the Washington Examiner? Be sure to read our guidelines on submissions for editorials, available at this link.