The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Maryland Gov. Hogan’s crime proposals are ineffective and undemocratic

Civil rights consultant Marvin Cheatham Sr. at a crime scene in Baltimore. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
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Marilyn Mosby, a Democrat, is the Baltimore City state’s attorney.

In 1994, Democrats in Congress joined their Republicans peers to pass a crime bill that poured gasoline on the fire known as the “war on drugs.” The devastating effects of that bill are still evident today in cities like Baltimore that have experienced mass incarceration and the devastation of poor and underserved communities.

Facing the failed outcomes of this law, policymakers were forced to accept the reality that simply spending money on more law enforcement and passing out tougher sentences won’t sustainably reduce crime or make our communities safer; Just look at how former president Bill Clinton and former vice president Joe Biden have since repudiated the bill.

It’s not enough to call it a mistake when the consequences continue to reverberate for millions of Americans.

Shockingly, it appears our states’ leaders are ignoring the painful lessons we have learned in the past 25 years when it comes to smart criminal justice policies. Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and Attorney General Brian Frosh (D) appear to be resurrecting that crime bill with a tough-on-crime package that will repeat the mistakes of the past — at the expense of the taxpayers and public safety.

The Hogan administration has proposed spending millions of dollars to increase law enforcement personnel as part of a broader legislative proposal that would also seek to expand the use of mandatory minimum sentences.

A key feature of Hogan’s plan is the funding of 20 prosecutors in the Office of the Attorney General who would focus on drug and gun crimes, something Frosh advocated for when the governor granted him the power over city prosecutions — a breathtaking power grab that he made without ever consulting me or my office.

The governor has claimed this extraordinary decision is necessary because, “Far too often in Baltimore City, violent offenders get a slap on the wrist.” We saw similar fear-mongering in the debate around the 1994 crime bill. But the 94 percent felony conviction data compiled by the State’s Attorney’s Office contradict it this time.

Tougher penalties and more prosecutions are not the way out of the problems our city faces; if the governor had experience working in the justice system, he’d know that. We’ve done the war on drugs. We’ve done stop-and-frisk. We’ve done zero-tolerance. All these policies have been a disaster for Baltimore, as is evident in tens of thousands of lives lost to drug and gun violence since 1994.

Aside from being ineffective, the Hogan-Frosh approach would cause major problems for the citizens of Baltimore. The 20 OAG prosecutors will generate a significant number of cases that would be treated differently from cases from my office. This could become a significant public safety concern for our community.

For example, this year my office announced that we will decline to prosecute marijuana possession cases. Under the Hogan-Frosh scenario, the OAG could prosecute these cases. In essence, with the Hogan-Frosh proposal, Baltimore residents charged with the same crime could receive charging, bail, plea-bargains and sentence recommendations from the OAG that differ greatly from what my office would do. We should be working to reduce disparities in the criminal justice system, not creating uncertainty and exacerbating them.

The Hogan-Frosh crime proposal is also a rejection of the voters’ will. The governor may not like how I prosecute crime in the city. That’s his opinion. But he didn’t elect me; the people of this city did, and I answer to them. I was elected and reelected by the voters of Baltimore to do this job. Frosh was elected for a completely different role; he should focus on that job.

What’s going on here in Baltimore is not unique. Assaults on reform-minded prosecutors and attempts to interfere with how we are doing our jobs are common in cities around the country.

In Philadelphia, the state legislature and attorney general moved to strip the authority of Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner. The Florida governor took cases from Aramis Ayala, a state’s attorney who refused to support the death penalty. In Chicago and St. Louis, the local police unions have manufactured special investigations to target duly-elected prosecutors.

Despite all of this, I’ve attempted to reason with the governor. I finally had the chance to sit down with him to discuss the challenges our city faces. I told him we must be as equally smart on crime as we are tough on crime. I revisited evidence-based solutions I proposed in September that included a plan to increase clearance rates in homicide and gun cases, provide more funding for community-based violence interruption programs and find collaborative solutions to address failures in the juvenile justice system. We also agreed to work on legislation to prevent witness intimidation and provide more funding for victim and witness services. The conversation was productive, and I look forward to similar meetings.

Our city is at a crossroads. We can pursue policies that will ravage our communities through mass incarceration or we can be innovative and impactful and attack the root causes of why crimes take place. We can continue the interagency squabbling and turf wars or we can work collaboratively and thoughtfully to reduce crime and violence for the people who put their trust in us to make them safer.

I have hope that our state’s leaders will look to the mistakes of the past and learn from them.