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Halfway house could negate city's hard-earned gains

October 01, 2009

It's been a long-term struggle, but anyone walking the streets of downtown Hagerstown these days surely will notice a positive change. Sidewalk cafes and flower boxes are a cheery alternative to the boarded-up windows of yore.

Another long-term struggle involved the release of inmates from the state prisons south of town. Instead of providing transportation back to their places of origin, until recently they were dropped off at a local bus station. Some got on those buses, but many didn't, choosing to stay in Hagerstown and integrating into the community in ways that, to say the least, were not always productive.

So Hagerstown can be excused for getting a bit antsy over feelers to open a halfway house for federal prisoners in the city. As a location for a halfway house, a site in downtown Hagerstown "could not be worse," Hagerstown Police Chief Arthur Smith wrote.

Fortunately, one downtown address under consideration was nixed by Mike Deming, the building's owner, who agreed that a halfway house would be a poor fit. But the search continues, and at least one other site is under consideration.

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With three state prisons south of town, no one can argue that Washington County isn't doing its share on the inmate-housing front. The fear, as Smith correctly notes, is that Washington County will become a "dumping" ground for other communities that do not want to do their own fair share.

And along with fighting crime, city officials also are doing battle against the perception of crime, which is not necessarily the same thing.

There still are many people who believe the inner city to be an unsafe hornet's nest of criminal activity, even though in reality it's probably no worse than any other town its size. Should a halfway house move in, it just provides more grist for the mill of misconceptions.

In other words, as the city becomes reinvigorated with better shops and popular nighttime activity, a halfway house projects exactly the wrong image.

As Smith says, it "would be a stunning reversal of our hard-fought gains."

The gains are hard-fought and, we might add, still fragile at this point in time. The recession and housing crisis hit Hagerstown at the worst possible time, just as tender new shoots of vibrancy were beginning to sprout. Downtown's future success cannot be taken as a given.

And while halfway houses are needed and have value -- as do AA meeting houses, shelters and even meth clinics -- a critical mass of these social services, for lack of a better term, can choke out desirable development.

Finally, we question whether the inner city is the best spot for men and women who have paid for their crimes and are trying to get a fresh start. As mentioned, Hagerstown still is teetering between darkness and light, and for someone re-entering society, too many temptations and too few good jobs are within walking distance of a city location.

Certainly, people are not going to stand up and volunteer their neighborhoods as a host site for a halfway house. But in a perfect world, the best place for one is in a community that already is strong and self-assured, where those seeking a toehold back into society will be lifted up and where the good influences -- both culturally and economically -- far outweigh the bad.

Perhaps Hagerstown will someday be in that place. But for today, as the city struggles to hold onto its hard-earned gains, a halfway house only adds weight to the wrong side of the scales.

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