When State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced she would stop prosecuting people for certain crimes, advocacy groups and progressive politicians applauded her decision. For too long, they said, the justice system has come down hardest on the people who need help.
In neighborhood meetings, however, Baltimore families expressed mixed feelings. Can they no longer call the cops when a man walks through their neighborhood tugging the handles of car doors? That could be a charge called rogue and vagabond, the attempted theft of a car.
What about when men pull up to Penhurst Park to solicit sex workers? What about the drug dealers?
Here’s what Mosby’s office says about these prosecutions.
Will drug dealers be prosecuted?
“It is absolutely the case that we are charging drug sellers. It is absolutely the case that we are charging distribution. Nothing about that has changed,” said Michael Collins, her strategic policy and planning director.
What’s the distinction between distribution and possession?
Evidence such as baggies, scales, packaging materials and wads of cash all support a charge of drug distribution. Mosby has said her office would continue to prosecute people caught with drugs and packaging materials.
What if police find someone, say, without packaging materials but a big suitcase of heroin?
“We would take that case on, absolutely,” Collins said. “We can’t build a case around distribution on a small amount of drugs.”
Where do officials draw the line in supply size?
Is it 10 gel caps? 50?
Collins declined to say if the office has set a specific thresholds to distinguish possession and distribution.
“When you give a cutoff,” he said, “it’s completely arbitrary. People have different amounts of drugs they use. For the people who sell drugs, they know what the amount is that’s going to be the cutoff. If I say the amount is 10 pieces, they’ll just carry nine pieces. It doesn’t make sense to us to advertise the amount.”
What else won’t be prosecuted?
The office won’t prosecute nine types of charges: drug possession, attempted distribution, paraphernalia, prostitution, trespassing, minor traffic offenses, open container, rogue and vagabond, and urinating and defecating in public.
Though Mosby’s policy garnered praise in some quarters as a step toward a more fair and equitable justice system, these quality-of-life crimes have been on the minds of some city residents.
“When you have somebody behind your house in an alley, and their response is: ‘No, you don’t understand, that’s not a crime anymore,’ — that doesn’t solve the problem,” said Nick Kirley, president of the Highlandtown Community Association.
What do police say?
Police have their own message for residents: Don’t stop calling 911.
“Nothing’s changed. If people have a community concern. They should reach out and call the police,” said Michael Sullivan, the deputy commissioner who oversees criminal investigations and patrol. “People call us all the time for suspicious activity and we want them to continue.”
Oftentimes, an officer can resolve a concern simply by showing up, taking stock of the scene and talking to someone, Sullivan said.
“The arrest is not the major tool that’s going to solve low-level crime,” he said.
Is this policy all-new?
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Mosby announced in March 2020 that her staff would dismiss cases on these crimes. The experiment, she said, was intended partly to reduce the number of people behind bars where they are vulnerable to the coronavirus. One year later, Mosby said the results were so good that she decided to make the COVID-19 policies permanent.
Collins said the state’s attorney’s office is monitoring the data and regularly meeting with police and city officials to track the progress. He said the office is not opposed to making adjustments if needed.
“We don’t just drop the policy and walk away,” he said.
Where can I get more details?
To reassure neighbors and dispel what she’s called “a great deal of misinformation,” Mosby has scheduled nine town hall meetings across the city to explain what crimes her office is and isn’t prosecuting. These virtual meetings are scheduled over the next three weeks.
“These are the low-level offenses that are often a quality-of-life issue, that annoy people and upset people, but they’re not a public safety threat,” Collins said. “What we’re trying to say is, should prosecutors, should law enforcement, be the ones to try and solve these social issues?”
The meetings are scheduled for 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday and May 3, 4, 6, 11 and 13.
To sign up for the virtual town hall meetings, visit https://www.stattorney.org.