Baltimore Stops Prosecuting “Low-Level” Crimes Like Prostitution, Drug Possession

In a March 26 press conference, Marilyn Mosby, the state’s attorney for Baltimore, announced the city would permanently cease prosecuting “low-level” offenses, including possession or attempted distribution of controlled substances, prostitution, possession of drug paraphernalia, trespassing, open container, public urination, minor traffic offenses, and vagabondage. The announcement said the new steps grew out of an experiment known as Covid Criminal Justice, begun a year earlier to develop a sensible policy to reduce jail and prison population to limit spread of the pandemic there.

Mosby noted the experiment had involved the Baltimore Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement, Johns Hopkins University, and local civic groups including Baltimore Crisis Response and the NAACP. Both the city’s mayor and police commissioner expressed support for the changed enforcement policy. The announcement also noted during the experiment, 1,423 criminal cases had been dismissed, and 1,415 warrants for offenses covered by the experiment were quashed; for individuals with dismissed charges or quashed warrants, only five (or 0.4% of the total) were arrested on any charge during the next eight months.

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan (R) also issued two executive orders that brought early release for 2,000 inmates. Overall, the incarcerated population of Baltimore fell by 18%, and there was a 39% reduction in those entering the criminal justice system, compared with the number from the comparable period a year earlier, according to Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services statistics. Between March 13, 2020 and exactly a year later, violent crime declined 20% and property crime fell 36%. Analysis by Johns Hopkins professionals found calls to 911 about drug use, public drunkenness or sex work did not increase during the experiment, but actually dropped off sharply (by 33% for drug use and 50% for sex work, compared with levels during the previous two years).

State’s Attorney Mosby pointed to those statistics as proving the experiment had been “nothing short of successful,” and said law enforcement would develop “sustainable solutions” and work with public health partners to address mental health and substance abuse disorder. And she declared an end to “America’s war on drug users” in Baltimore, as the city left behind “the era of tough-on-crime prosecution and zero tolerance policing” and rejected “the status quo to criminalize mostly people of color for addiction.” Instead, Mosby said she wanted prosecutors “working with the police to focus on violent offenses like armed robbery, carjackings, and… drug dealing and distribution organizations that are the underbelly of the violence in Baltimore, not using valuable jury trial time on those that suffer from addiction.”

A Baltimore police union sounded a discordant note, however, tweeting the new prosecution policies appear to permit trespassing “with impunity” at the city’s Camden Yards baseball park, City Hall, or even Mosby’s office, along with open drug use at City Council meetings. A Republican state senator also noted that the state’s constitution entitles the state legislature, not prosecutors, to set criminal enforcement policy. The Baltimore Sun also recently reported federal investigators have launched a probe of the tax and financial dealings of Mosby and her husband Nick, chairman of the Baltimore City Council.

About the Author

Scott J. Limmer is a New York criminal attorney practicing primarily in Nassau, Suffolk, and Queens counties. He also represents students nationwide when they are charged with violations of their school’s code of conduct.

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