Police officers in Baltimore soon will begin issuing criminal citations to people for low-level offenses, such as loitering, drinking in public and drug possession, according to a new policy spearheaded by State’s Attorney Ivan Bates.
Those who receive citations will be required to report to a special docket, hosted once monthly in three of the city’s four District Court locations, where prosecutors will offer the opportunity to complete community service in lieu of prosecution, and access to “wraparound services,” such as substance use treatment, Bates said in an interview with The Baltimore Sun ahead of his public announcement.
If the person cited agrees to do community service or treatment and does so before their trial date, prosecutors will drop their charges, Bates said. If the person rejects community service or treatment, prosecutors will proceed with the petty crime charges, which, by law, carry maximum penalties of less than a year in jail and fines.
Bates, a Democrat, said his goal is to connect people to services they need rather than subject them to incarceration.
The policy also fulfills a campaign promise to distinguish himself from his predecessor, Marilyn Mosby, who at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic, discontinued the prosecutions of the type of low-level offenses Bates now seeks to address with citations.
“I never want to go back to mass incarceration that we had before — we won’t go back as long as I’m state’s attorney,” Bates told The Sun. “But I also felt like the pendulum swung too far where we just said ‘We aren’t going to ever enforce anything.’”
People who have pending charges for violent crimes, are on probation for violent crimes or who have outstanding warrants will not be eligible for alternatives to prosecution, according to Bates. He said his prosecutors will offer community service and treatment alternatives a second time for those cited for petty offenses twice, but not when a person receives a third citation for a similar offense.
Children will not receive citations, as the state Department of Juvenile Services has jurisdiction over minor legal infractions by those under 18.
A range of law enforcement agencies that operate in the city will issue citations, including Baltimore Police, the sheriff’s office, Maryland Transit Administration Police, the Maryland Transportation Authority, campus police at several universities, and Amtrak Police, among others. Officers with some of those agencies, including the sheriff’s office, are not equipped with body-worn cameras.
Enforcement will begin June 12, while the first citation docket is scheduled for July 17 at the District Court on East North Avenue. Courthouses in South and West Baltimore will host citation dockets July 18 and 19.
The state’s attorney’s office has partnered with city agencies and organizations to offer vocational, educational, life-skills training and mental health services for those cited by police.
Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott, Police Commissioner Michael Harrison and Sheriff Sam Cogen support Bates’ policy. Bates also said his office worked with city judges to create the docket in district court. And his office consulted with the Office of the Public Defender, whose attorneys will represent those who can’t afford attorneys for the low-level offenses.
Critics worry about unequal enforcement
Some criticized the citation docket, arguing it still uses the threat of a stick to get people into services.
Marguerite E. Lanaux, district public defender for Baltimore, said in a statement that her office pushed back against Bates, arguing that diverting people to resources shouldn’t involve the courts.
“Many of the clients we serve will not be eligible for diversion and these citation dockets create an additional appearance before the court, additional time off work, additional childcare,” she said.
Where Bates touts the policy as a measure of accountability, of improving public safety and quality of life, Lanaux and others see it as a step backwards.
Lanaux and David Jaros, faculty director of the University of Baltimore School of Law’s Center for Criminal Justice Reform, said the policy will lead to disproportionate enforcement in the city’s disenfranchised communities.
“While charge by citation avoids the trauma of being arrested and booked, we are strongly opposed to the push to reinstitute charging citizens with these low level offenses,” Lanaux said. “History supports that the prosecution of these offenses have the effect of targeting unhoused people, Black and brown individuals, people experiencing poverty, and individuals with mental health concerns.”
“Not only does this approach fail to reduce violent crime,” Lanaux continued, “it has the potential to lead to police-citizens encounters that escalate to tragedies this city has experienced in the past, such as the death of Freddie Gray.”
Jaros pointed to a Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health study examining the effects of Mosby’s decision to quit prosecuting drug possession and other low-level offenses.
Researchers found no increase in citizen complaints or greater threat to public safety in the 14 months they studied. The study also found no evidence that people who benefitted from the policy change went on to reoffend at a high rate, suggesting that they are not the same individuals “committing otherwise serious crimes.”
“The decision to move away from using the criminal justice system for social problems is a positive step. It did not, contrary to popular belief, contribute to an increase in crime,” Jaros said.
To be sure, Jaros believes providing services to people in need is a positive. But, he said, using the threat of the criminal justice system to get people to accept help isn’t effective or a productive use of law enforcement resources.
“I want our prosecutors and police focused on the essential work of fighting serious crime and investigating serious cases rather than being a broad net scooping people up who are suffering from things like addiction to force them into treatment,” Jaros said.
‘We had to start somewhere’
Harrison, the Baltimore Police commissioner, called so-called “quality of life” offenses a concern for some community members. Issuing citations, he said, is a way to enforce those laws and be responsive to residents, without resorting to “mass incarceration.”
“This is actually about now creating the avenue for those individuals ... to have a pathway into the court system, where resources can be given to them,” Harrison said.
The city’s consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice, reached in 2017 to address unconstitutional policing by Baltimore officers, lays out that the appropriate response for “quality of life” offenses is the “least intrusive” step possible. It says a warning and counseling is preferable to a citation, for example, and a citation preferable to an arrest.
Harrison and Bates told The Sun that the policy would not run afoul of the consent decree, with Bates arguing that prosecuting low-level crimes in a “proper way” could help rebuild community trust with police.
The Morning Sun
“Think about it, these kids are out here loitering and trespassing [and] Ms. Johnson’s afraid to walk to go to church. Then she sees these kids out there, the same dudes who are loitering on her stoop, now they’re cleaning up the whole neighborhood,” Bates said. “That’s something positive from it.”
Prior to 2020, the city operated an early resolution court that included a citation docket where defendants were offered a community service option, according to Patricia Deros, the prosecutor who was assigned to that court and who will handle the new citation court. The revived initiative adds wraparound service offerings and will be held at more than one courthouse, Deros said.
Bates said he ultimately hopes to create what he called a “community court” in one centralized location to address low-level offenses and house wraparound services.
“I’ve gone real hard at the violence, but now it’s like, ‘Look, not everybody needs that.’ We have a lot of people in this city who are suffering. We just want to help them get up — but we don’t want them to have that scarlet letter of a criminal record.”
In response to a question about how the office would ensure that citations aren’t targeting marginalized areas or specific populations, Bates said his office planned to collect data on the locations of citations and the offenses being cited. Staff said they hadn’t determined whether that data would be publicly available, and Bates said he expects his administration is “going to have to tweak this.”
“We had to start slow. We had to start small,” Bates said. “But we had to start somewhere.”
The low-level offenses that could result in a criminal citation and prosecution moving forward include:
- Dirt bike charges, including driving or riding a dirt bike on public or private city property, possessing an unlocked dirt bike and permitting another to drive or ride a dirt bike;
- False representation;
- Disorderly drinking;
- Disorderly intoxication;
- Drinking in public places;
- Aggressive panhandling;
- Soliciting on highways;
- Urinating in public;
- Failure to obey a reasonable and lawful order;
- Disorderly conduct;
- Spitting in public places;
- Theft, for items worth less than $100 or between $100 and $1,500;
- Malicious destruction;
- Drug possession; and
- Possession of marijuana with intent to distribute.