Baltimore will no longer prosecute drug possession, prostitution, low-level crimes

A pandemic experiment in criminal justice reform takes hold in one of America's most violent cities.

Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby during a news conference in Maryland on Dec. 3, 2019.Julio Cortez / AP file

A year ago, as the coronavirus began to spread across Maryland, Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby stopped prosecuting drug possession, prostitution, minor traffic violations and other low-level offenses, a move aimed at curbing Covid-19's spread behind bars.

That shift — repeated by prosecutors in many other cities — didn’t just reduce jail populations. In Baltimore, nearly all categories of crime have since declined, confirming to Mosby what she and criminal justice experts have argued for years: Crackdowns on quality-of-life crimes are not necessary for stopping more serious crime.

On Friday, Mosby announced that she was making her pandemic experiment permanent, saying Baltimore — for decades notorious for runaway violence and rough policing — had become a case study in criminal justice reform.

In the 12 months since she ordered scaled-back enforcement, violent crime is down 20 percent and property crime has declined 36 percent, she said. Homicides inched down, though Baltimore still has one of the highest homicide rates among cities nationwide. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University found sharp reductions in calls to police complaining about drugs and prostitution, she said.

“Clearly, the data suggest there is no public safety value in prosecuting low-level offenses,” Mosby said at a news conference.

But whether Baltimore is indeed an experiment that can be replicated elsewhere remains to be seen. Enforcement of low-level crimes has dropped in many parts of the country over the past year, as police limited operations to avoid contracting and spreading the virus and as prosecutors and judges sought to contain the virus’s spread in jails. But Baltimore is one of the few big cities where violence did not increase. In dozens of cities, homicides and shootings rose in 2020.

While many prosecutors have maintained their pandemic suspensions on low-level offense prosecutions, few have said those shifts will remain in place in perpetuity. Some newly elected prosecutors, though, have vowed to abandon low-level cases permanently.

At Friday's news conference, Mosby also faced questions about a federal investigation into her campaign finances, as well as the finances of her husband, a city councilman. Her attorney has called the investigation "politically motivated." Mosby dismissed a reporter's questions about the probe, saying she wanted to focus on her new policy.

She said the Baltimore Police Department will be a partner in this shift away from low-level prosecutions, in which officers and prosecutors will focus on violent crime and drug trafficking as courts begin holding criminal trials again.

“Our understanding is that the police are going to follow what they’ve been doing for the past year, which is not arresting people based on the offenses I mentioned,” Mosby said.

At the same time, law enforcement will work with a local nonprofit, Baltimore Crisis Response Inc., to provide services to people suffering from mental illness, homelessness and drug addiction.

The Baltimore Police Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Police Commissioner Michael Harrison told The Washington Post that the policy had been difficult for officers to accept when it was implemented last year, and that he expected crime to rise. He told the Post that he now believed the pullback may have worked.

A spokeswoman for the local police officers union did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Kobi Little, head of the Baltimore chapter of the NAACP, said at the news conference that Mosby’s move was a recognition that decades of heavy-handed enforcement in Baltimore had done more harm than good.

“We want to see more elected officials stand up on these issues,” he said.

Kim Foxx, the state's attorney in Cook County, Illinois, said Mosby’s announcement was the culmination of years of discussion among reformers seeking ways to reduce focus on low-level offenses. “Covid provided a real opportunity to test it, to move from theory to practice,” she said.

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“What Marilyn has been able to do is demonstrate that those changes didn’t lead to an increase in violent crime, didn’t lead to mayhem in the streets. The theory in practice yielded good results.”

Foxx, like Mosby, halted prosecution of minor crimes in the early days of the pandemic. But she is still exploring whether to make those changes permanent. Cook County — which includes Chicago — has seen an increase in homicides and shootings. That means Foxx will have to do a deeper analysis of what caused the spike before deciding what to do.

Michael Kahn, director of the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said he believed Mosby was the first prosecutor to permanently shift away from minor offenses. More will likely follow if they see that their policies did not cause crime spikes, he said.

“I would expect now that the dam has broken that in the next few months we will start to see folks follow once they have their arms around the data,” Kahn said.