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After crime plummeted in 2020, Baltimore will stop drug, sex prosecutions

State’s Attorney Mosby stopped non-violent prosecutions for the coronavirus, but then violent crime dropped 20 percent.

Baltimore City State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby during a news conference in 2019. She is ending prosecution of all drug possession, prostitution, minor traffic offenses and other nonviolent misdemeanors in Baltimore. (Julio Cortez/AP)

Something happened in Baltimore last year. The coronavirus pandemic hit, and State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby announced that the city would no longer prosecute drug possession, prostitution, trespassing and other minor charges, to keep people out of jail and limit the spread of the deadly virus.

And then crime went down in Baltimore. A lot. While violent crime and homicides skyrocketed in most other big American cities last year, violent crime in Baltimore dropped 20 percent from last March to this month, property crime decreased 36 percent, and there were 13 fewer homicides compared with the previous year. This happened while 39 percent fewer people entered the city’s criminal justice system in the one-year period, and 20 percent fewer people landed in jail after Mosby’s office dismissed more than 1,400 pending cases and tossed out more than 1,400 warrants for nonviolent crimes.

Homicides rose 30 percent in 2020, survey of 34 U.S. cities finds

So on Friday, Mosby made her temporary steps permanent. She announced Baltimore City will continue to decline prosecution of all drug possession, prostitution, minor traffic and misdemeanor cases, and will partner with a local behavioral health service to aggressively reach out to drug users, sex workers and people in psychiatric crisis to direct them into treatment rather than the back of a patrol car.

“A year ago, we underwent an experiment in Baltimore,” Mosby said in an interview, describing steps she took after consulting with public health and state officials to reduce the public’s exposure to the coronavirus, including not prosecuting nonviolent offenses. “What we learned in that year, and it’s so incredibly exciting, is there’s no public safety value in prosecuting these low-level offenses. These low-level offenses were being, and have been, discriminately enforced against Black and Brown people.

“The era of ‘tough on crime’ prosecutors is over in Baltimore,” Mosby said. “We have to rebuild the community’s trust in the criminal justice system and that’s what we will do, so we can focus on violent crime.” In a city that still struggles with a high homicide rate and gun violence, even with the decline in crime, she said the policy shift will enable more prosecutors to be assigned to homicides and other major cases instead of misdemeanor court.

The pandemic accelerated an effort already underway by liberal prosecutors across the country to reduce or eliminate the prosecution of minor crimes. Not long after the coronavirus hit, prosecutors in Seattle and Brooklyn announced they would not pursue low-level offenses that don’t jeopardize public safety. In Washington state last month, the Supreme Court ruled that the state’s drug possession law was unconstitutional because it didn’t account for the defendant’s intent. King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg said he already wasn’t pursuing such cases “because we did no good for people struggling with substance abuse disorder.”

In California, prosecutors in Los Angeles and Contra Costa counties have recently stopped taking people to court for drug possession and low-level misdemeanors. “The data suggests,” newly elected Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón said in an email, “that the bulk of misdemeanor caseloads — which represent the vast majority of filings in the United States — involve the prosecution of cases with minimal, and often negative, long-term impacts on public safety. It’s this reality that led to my policy prohibiting the filing of many first time low-level misdemeanors.”

But a number of legal experts said they had not seen an effort like Mosby’s in which behavioral health services were actively brought into the mix from the outset of cases. Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott (D) issued a statement Friday lauding Mosby for “working with partners to stem violence in Baltimore and ensure residents have the adequate support services they deserve.”

But Sean Kennedy, a visiting fellow at the Maryland Public Policy Institute who studies and has written about Baltimore crime and arrest data, said forgoing the prosecutions of low-level crimes is a mistake in a city he called the “murder capital of America.”

“These ‘quality of life’ violations are more than a nuisance, they are precursors and directly proximate to much more serious and often violent crimes,” Kennedy said, referring to offenses such as human trafficking and drug-related shootings. Kennedy said Mosby dismisses violent crime cases “at record rates, rarely secures prison time for gun offenders and has presided over the largest rise in homicides in decades.”

Mosby said her policy decision is unrelated to a federal investigation of her and her husband’s personal and campaign finances. The initial changes in prosecution policy occurred a year ago, and their success caused her to make them permanent, she said.

The decision not to prosecute drug and nonviolent misdemeanor crimes meant a huge paradigm shift for police, Commissioner Michael Harrison said in an interview. Officers who made drug arrests saw prosecutors dismissing the charges at the jail, and so the arrests mainly stopped. Mosby said there were 80 percent fewer arrests for drug possession in Baltimore in the past year.

“The officers told me they did not agree with that paradigm shift,” Harrison said. He said he had to “socialize” both officers and citizens to this new approach. Harrison expected crime to rise. “It did not,” the chief said. “It continued to go down through 2020. As a practitioner, as an academic, I can say there’s a correlation between the fact that we stopped making these arrests and crime did not go up,” though he cautioned that the coronavirus could have had some impact. Mosby noted that the virus did not keep crime from rising in nearly every other big U.S. city last year. Even with its progress, Baltimore had 335 homicides in 2020 and killings are up in the first months of this year.

Shootings never stopped during the pandemic: 2020 was the deadliest gun violence year in decades

Harrison enthusiastically supported Mosby’s move to sign an agreement with Baltimore Crisis Response Inc., a private nonprofit group that provides services to people with mental health and substance use disorders. With the police, BCRI will launch a 911 alternative dispatch where calls for behavioral health issues are routed to BCRI, which can send a two-person mobile crisis team to a scene or immediately refer people to services. The state’s attorney’s office is also collaborating with three Baltimore groups that offer a variety of services to sex workers.

Social workers are “better suited to deal with these issues,” Harrison said. “For generations, we’ve been asked to be all things to all people. That never should have happened.”

The head of the Baltimore Fraternal Order of Police union did not return messages seeking comment.

Edgar K. Wiggins, executive director of BCRI, said that his agency taking a more immediate role in public response “gives us a conduit into a population that, honestly, we’ve not always had access to, and they haven’t had access to us.” He said mobile response teams will have a mental health professional and a registered nurse because “these folks often haven’t managed their health.” Immediate referrals for sex workers can be effective because “more often than not they have problems with substance use disorder and addictions. We want to divert people from involvement in the criminal justice system, which is not going to be helpful for their chronic problems.”

Mosby and others said that the racial justice protests of last summer provided further momentum for the need to revamp the justice system. Kobi Little, head of the Baltimore NAACP, said Mosby had been “responsive to the community’s needs and to calls for equity.” He said the new approach has led to “reduced policing and incarceration of Black people, increased access to crisis services” and “reduction in violent crime.”

Mosby asked public health researchers at Johns Hopkins University to examine the effect of her March 2020 policy shifts on public calls for police service and on rearrests of those who had charges dropped or warrants quashed. The number of 911 calls for drug or intoxication situations dropped from 131 per day before the pandemic to 88 per day in the eight months between March and December last year. Calls for prostitution or sex work dropped from six per day to three per day, the Johns Hopkins researchers found. The number of 911 calls for violent crimes did not drop significantly in the same period.

They also found that of 1,431 people who had charges or warrants dismissed at the outset, only five were rearrested. Though studies of recidivism typically look at three years to review data on repeat offenders, the fact that only five reentered the system in eight months is “pretty unbelievable,” said Susan G. Sherman, a behavioral health professor at Johns Hopkins who specializes in helping marginalized populations. “In a world where drug decriminalization is happening around the country, the impact on the community is important,” Sherman said, and Mosby “really values having an understanding of these impacts.”

A number of big-city prosecutors have moved to decriminalize drugs, and Oregon voters decriminalized small amounts of drugs statewide. Miriam Krinsky, head of Fair and Just Prosecution, which advocates for liberal prosecutors, said many prosecutors are now getting their communities to treat drug abuse as a public health problem rather than a crime problem. “At a minimum, the criminal justice system needs to get out of the way and do no harm,” Krinsky said. “It’s been doing harm for decades. We need to stop trying to punish our way out of it.”

Mosby noted that 13 percent of the American population is Black, but 35 percent of those incarcerated for drug violations are Black. “As a prosecutor, our mission is justice over convictions,” Mosby said. “You have to understand the importance of rectifying the wrongs of the past.”

Millicent Wagner understands that. She said she spent years as a drug addict and prostitute on the streets of Baltimore before going sober and reuniting with her family more than two years ago. But she still had an outstanding prostitution warrant from 2018. Last fall, she reached out to Mosby’s office after hearing of the new policy, and records show it quickly dismissed her case.

Trying to resolve her warrant the old way — surrendering at the jail, possibly going into custody, waiting 30 days for a hearing — “would have devastated my child. It would have hurt him the most. It would hurt me, too. Just having to be back in the Baltimore city jail, all those things I’ve been staying away from.” Instead of being back in the system, she is getting a state identification card that she wouldn’t apply for with an outstanding warrant, plus a Social Security card, and then a job.

“I think this could help a lot of people in my situation that have turned themselves around,” Wagner said. “It’s hard.”