Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby ordered her staff Wednesday to dismiss pending criminal charges against anyone arrested for possessing drugs including heroin, attempted distribution of any drug, prostitution, trespassing, minor traffic offenses, open container and urinating in public.
Mosby said she’s taking the action to reduce the threat of a coronavirus outbreak behind bars. These crimes pose no risk to public safety and the defendants would be released before trial in normal times, she wrote in a memo to prosecutors.
“An outbreak in prison or jails could potentially be catastrophic,” she wrote. “Now is not the time for a piecemeal approach where we go into court and argue one one by one for the release of at-risk individuals."
Many of those whose cases will be dropped are not currently in jail.
In addition, Mosby sent a letter to Gov. Larry Hogan urging him to free all inmates over the age of 60 in state prisons, anyone approved for parole, and all prisoners scheduled to complete their sentences within the next year. She asked the governor to release them under supervision.
“Jails and prisons cycle large numbers of people in and out of close, unsanitary quarters on a daily basis," Mosby wrote the governor. “If these facilities become breeding grounds for the coronavirus, it will not only impact those incarcerated, but our entire communities.”
Gov. Larry Hogan could not be reached for comment and his staff said he would not be available for comment.
The number of people infected with coronavirus continues to rise in Maryland. State health officials said Wednesday the state has at least 85 confirmed cases of the illness known as COVID-19.
Mosby’s actions respond to a call from advocacy groups and public defenders to limit chances of the virus sweeping through Maryland’s jails and prisons.
“We are grateful that our criminal justice partners recognized these concerns and collaborated to reduce the jail population and save the lives of our most vulnerable clients," wrote Kirsten Gettys Downs, the district public defender for Baltimore, in an email. “Ongoing detention during this public health crisis threatens the lives of our clients and creates conditions that will exacerbate the spread of this pandemic."
Baltimore Police declined to comment. A department spokesman would not say whether officers will continue to arrest people on charges such as drug possession and prostitution.
Mosby announced in January that she would stop prosecuting people for possessing marijuana regardless of the quantity. Last year, when she promised to end marijuana prosecutions, she cited research showing marijuana arrests disproportionately affect Baltimore’s African-American neighborhoods. Her new efforts would release anyone arrested for drug possession and attempted distribution, including for cocaine, heroin and fentanyl, during the viral outbreak.
Nazgol Ghandnoosh, a researcher with the Sentencing Project, a prisoner right’s advocacy group in D.C., called Mosby’s announcement a “great start for sure” and said some jurisdictions are beginning to look further. She cited the Philadelphia Police Department no longer arresting people for nonviolent crimes such as auto theft, theft from persons and others.
In Prince George’s County, prosecutors announced they were reviewing cases one-by-one and plan to release at least 40 people held on nonviolent offenses such as trespassing, misdemeanor theft and disorderly conduct. Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger said he was working with the county jail to identify nonviolent offenders for release.
Ghandnoosh also echoed Mosby’s call for the release of prisoners who are close to completing their sentences.
“It would run completely counterproductive to send someone to jail right now,” she said.
Coronavirus cases have exploded in Chinese prisons, according to reports by the Associated Press. In Italy, prisoners rioted over strict measures to curtail the virus including a restriction on family visits, something Hogan has implemented in Maryland. And in Iran, 54,000 inmates were temporarily released due to fears of a prison outbreak.
Some 2.3 million people are locked up in America’s prisons, local jails and juvenile detention centers, according to the nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative. Of them, about 1.3 million are held in state correctional facilities like the 18 in Maryland.
Still, Maryland’s prison population has fallen below 18,000 for the first time in nearly three decades.
Prisoners are more likely to be elderly and suffer chronic illnesses than the general public, leaving them vulnerable to the virus. Health officials have long warned about rampant illness behind bars. The close quarters and limitations on washing hands and wiping surfaces heightens the risk.
Maryland’s prisons alone hold more than 1,100 vulnerable inmates over the age of 60, Paul DeWolfe, Maryland’s top public defender, noted in a recent op-ed in The Baltimore Sun. For the elderly, he wrote, “incarceration during this public health crisis is akin to a death sentence."
In her letter to Hogan, Mosby also urged the governor to close the courts except for emergency hearings. She has pushed back against Baltimore Circuit Court judges who decided to continue to hear guilty pleas. Such proceedings require the presence of defense attorneys, clerks and other courtroom staff — leaving her prosecutors at risk of infection, she said.
On Tuesday, Mosby signed on with 30 prosecutors from around the country in urging local governments to take precautions. The prosecutors — including those from New York, Philadelphia, St. Louis and San Francisco — called for police to stop jailing people who pose no risk to public safety.
They also called for the release of prisoners held on charges of drug possession, and those locked up because they could not afford their cash bail. The prosecutors also called for the release of nonviolent prisoners who are elderly, chronically ill or six months from completing a sentence.
These policies should remain even after the pandemic subsides, the attorneys wrote.
“The United States is an international outlier in its rate of incarceration,” they wrote. “We put far too many people behind bars for far too long, and fail to provide adequate care to those we incarcerate. That’s a humanitarian crisis with or without COVID-19.”
Reporter Cody Boteler contributed to this article.