BALTIMORE (AP) — Baltimore’s top prosecutor announced Thursday a new program that allows police to issue citations for minor crimes such as loitering, drug possession and public urination — a significant shift from the more progressive policies of his predecessor, who declined to prosecute such cases.
The contrasting approaches exemplify an ongoing nationwide debate between supporters of criminal justice reform and those calling for a return to the country’s more traditional “law and order” approach.
Baltimore State’s Attorney Ivan Bates, who took office in January, held a news conference Thursday afternoon to announce the change, repeating a campaign promise to address so-called “quality of life” offenses. Bates said the program is a response to repeated complaints from residents who are “sick and tired” of seeing drug dealers on their blocks, among other problems. He said it will deliver a “return to accountability” in Baltimore and improve public safety.
However, it’s not clear whether issuing citations for low-level crimes will have any impact on violence. Bates acknowledged that defendants committing these crimes are often experiencing addiction, homelessness and other social challenges. He said a key part of the program is connecting them with services in lieu of prosecution.
“At the end of the day, we just cannot allow people to do whatever they want,” he said. “All we’re saying is there’s going to be some accountability and order in Baltimore City.”
Bates was elected last year after defeating then-incumbent Marilyn Mosby in a Democratic primary. Most recently a high-profile defense lawyer, Bates also served as a city prosecutor before running for state’s attorney.
During his campaign, Bates promised to roll back some of Mosby’s key policies, including her decision not to prosecute certain misdemeanors and minor felonies, most notably simple drug possession and prostitution.
Mosby announced the decision during the pandemic, when jurisdictions across the country were taking steps to reduce jail populations and minimize the spread of COVID. She had previously declined to prosecute marijuana possession cases. And she later decided to make the pandemic changes permanent, saying they would ease the burden of over-policing in Black communities across Baltimore and allow local law enforcement to focus on reducing violent crime long-term.
A 2021 report from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found the policy resulted in fewer low-level arrests and fewer 911 calls. They also found that defendants whose minor charges were dropped almost never got rearrested on more serious offenses.
But critics of the policy argued it was limiting the ability of police officers to take proactive action. While Baltimore gun violence has been trending down in recent months, the city has recorded over 300 annual homicides for the past eight years running — a devastating murder rate that’s consistently among the highest in the country.
When asked about the Hopkins study on Thursday, Bates said his office plans to collect their own data and continually evaluate the citation program once it gets underway.
Under the program, people will receive a citation that assigns them a court date. In court, prosecutors will offer eligible defendants community service hours in lieu of prosecution. They’ll also refer defendants to local social service providers, which could include housing and job placement programs, addiction treatment and more.
If the person completes their community service hours — likely five hours for the first offense and 10 hours for the second — before the case goes to trial, prosecutors will drop the charges. A third offense would result in prosecution no matter what, officials said.
In order to be eligible for diversion, defendants can’t have any pending violent charges or outstanding warrants, among other criteria.
“What this is not … is mass incarceration and aggressive policing,” Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison said during the Thursday news conference. “This is not about arresting our way out of violent crime or burdening people with citations.”
Harrison said some of his officers expressed frustration under Mosby because they couldn’t always resolve complaints from residents about quality of life issues.
Harrison and other city leaders said repeatedly that the program won’t have disproportionately negative impacts for communities of color, as similar prosecutions have in the past. They said it furthers the city’s holistic approach to public safety that seeks to address the root causes of crime, rather than relying primarily on law enforcement action.
But Marguerite Lanaux, Baltimore’s district public defender, said the focus on minor charges “will inherently result in disproportionate enforcement” against some of the city’s most vulnerable groups: “unhoused people, Black and brown individuals, people experiencing poverty and individuals with mental health concerns.”
In a statement Thursday, she said the Maryland Office of the Public Defender wants to see a shift toward true diversion, which would mean offering people services without first requiring them to show up in court.
Bates said that if a defendant fails to appear for their court date, they would likely be issued a summons.
This story was first published on June 1, 2023. It was updated on June 6, 2023 to correct that researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health did not receive funding from Marilyn Mosby’s office but collaborated with prosecutors to gather data for their report. A previous reference to the report’s funding has been deleted from the story.
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