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Marilyn Mosby’s experiment in ‘progressive prosecution’ calls for patience, something in short supply in crime-and-grime-weary Baltimore | COMMENTARY

Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby in March reported that her staff would no longer prosecute people charged with drug possession.
Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby in March reported that her staff would no longer prosecute people charged with drug possession. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun)

Throughout the many years since it became a destination for revelers, Fells Point was known for barrooms and drinking (and heavy drinking and even heavier drinking) and sometimes a brawl. It was not known for gunfire. So when shots rang out last weekend and three people ended up wounded, business owners raised hell — 30 of them threatened to withhold taxes unless the city stops the midnight mayhem that led to gunfire — and three law enforcement agencies flooded the zone to restore order.

That’s the way things work in this town: Places that are stable and relatively affluent, the parts that attract tourists, the areas with engaged citizens and business owners who make campaign contributions — those places know how to make noise and get what amounts to an emergency response from City Hall.

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Flooding the zone has happened in other parts of town, too — lots and lots of cops sent to a neighborhood to suppress violence and stop a surge. This old-school strategy might make sense in the short term. But it doesn’t get to the underlying problems unless the law enforcement response is combined with, even surpassed by, social services.

That was tried once, in 2013, when the city under former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake blocked off a street in the Oliver neighborhood for several days, sent in extra cops, removed trash, put up a tent and offered all kinds of on-the-spot help for low-income people who needed drug treatment, employment, child care, legal advice, medical attention and healthier food.

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If Baltimore is ever going to come out of its tailspin, we have to see consistent efforts like that sustained over a long period of time. It calls for a holistic approach, a whole culture of recovery, something big and transformative.

Which gets me to Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby. In March, she declared the war on drugs over and told us that her staff would no longer prosecute drug possession cases and other minor offenses. She said she had formed a partnership with a nonprofit provider to get more people with addictions and mental disorders into treatment.

Mosby’s experiment is going to end up being either the big, positive change Baltimore needs or a failure. The jury isn’t out; it hasn’t even been selected yet. We won’t know if this will have any significant effect on the quality of life in the city for some time yet.

Over the years, many Baltimoreans, including yours truly, declared the war on drugs misguided and racist; we called for armistice and decriminalization. So it’s hard for progressives to knock Mosby when it appears that she’s doing what we long believed was needed.

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But is Baltimore ready for this?

I notice in the letter from Fells Point business owners, the one in which they threaten to withhold taxes, a suggestion that Mosby is to blame for the waterfront lawlessness. Street sales of booze and weed, public urination and prostitution take place in plain sight, the letter says, and the police do nothing. And it’s implied that they do nothing because they know Mosby’s staff won’t prosecute the miscreants.

Mosby’s spokesman denies a connection, but you can see how someone might see it that way.

A man in the Mount Clare area, who asked that I not use his name, worries that doing nothing about drug possession in his neighborhood will mean even more dealers and customers lingering on the corner he can see from his bedroom window. In the past, rowdiness and noise from the corner would be “abated by arrest” and the corner cleared for a few days at a time, sometimes longer. “Mosby’s decision to no longer prosecute drug possession, open containers, trespassing and prostitution is going to exacerbate problems here,” the man says.

The corner is not violent, and the rowhouse neighborhood generally seems stable. But, in time, a permanent open-air drug market could render it vulnerable to decline. It’s not crazy that unabated drug dealing can ruin a neighborhood, and the last thing Baltimore needs is more people fleeing the city.

Which gets me to the owner of a downtown Baltimore business who is thinking of moving to the suburbs. The past year was tough, but thanks to federal pandemic relief, the business survived. Problem is, everything else stayed the same or got worse.

The sidewalk immediately outside the business smells of urine. Homeless men and women sit and sleep near the front door. The nearby alley is often littered with trash from a rifled-through Dumpster. A few other businesses in the area closed, adding to the office and retail vacancies that existed before the pandemic.

Relative to violent crime, these quality-of-life issues seem small. But they’re right there, within whiffing distance. Week after week, they create a sense of foreboding and wear people down.

The prospect of fewer arrests for nuisance-level crimes adds another pound of worry that things will get worse.

It’s too early in Mosby’s experiment in “progressive prosecution” to declare it a success or failure. It might seem intuitive to blame the recent mess in Fells Point on her messaging, but it’s too soon to tell if announcing fewer prosecutions will lead to more crime and mayhem. It’s also too soon to know if it will lead more people out of the cycle of crime, addiction and failure.

All that calls for patience, something in short supply in crime-and-grime-weary Baltimore.

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