Ivan Bates emerged victorious in the pivotal Democratic primary last July to become Baltimore’s state’s attorney with the message that he would not only get tougher on those who commit acts of violence but that he would also hold accountable low-level offenders. Not that those convicted of loitering, drug possession or public drunkenness would all be locked up and the key thrown away, but that there would be enforcement and “consequences” depending on the “case and offender.” The approach differentiated him from his chief opponent, incumbent Marilyn Mosby, who focused on criminal justice reform and how years of overpolicing young Black men had caused lasting damage to the city.
On June 1, Baltimoreans got a look at just what the Bates approach means. Standing with Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison and others, the city’s new top prosecutor announced that, beginning Monday, June 12, officers will return to issuing citations for petty crimes, like illegal dirt bike riding, but with some restraints. Minor crimes will be reserved for a special docket. Defendants will be steered toward services, such as drug treatment and mental health care, as needed, and most will have the option of community service in lieu of prosecution and a criminal record.
“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.’”
In short, if the justice pendulum had swung too far toward leniency during the Mosby era, Bates is now seeking to give it a gentle tap toward oversight and accountability.
Some will no doubt be quick to dismiss this approach as too soft, while others will fear a return to the bad old days of broken window policing, which led to aggressive enforcement of misdemeanor crimes and, frequently, unconstitutional targeting of the city’s Black residents. It’s true that Bates’ effort could fail in either direction. But it also could be just what Baltimore needs.
Surely, every parent can relate (and we’re talking about juveniles in many cases) to the need to balance discipline with compassion and support. Baltimore’s mayor took a similar approach with the city’s squeegee workers. Not that long ago, their presence cleaning windshields at busy intersections was condemned by some as aggressive panhandling and the bane of city living. Yet, through a combination of enforcement — banning them from certain corners — and providing alternative opportunities through a private-public “Squeegee Collaborative,” including jobs and job training, their numbers have dwindled significantly. Look, for example, at the case of Carlose DeBose Jr. He from cleaning car windshields to the city’s Hire Up program, eventually landing back in a classroom and picking up temporary jobs cleaning streets and running a food cart. None of this required him to be arrested.
Yet enforcement has its place. When police officers look the other way over petty crimes that can still seriously impact qualify of life, a message is sent that the people of Baltimore don’t really care if you urinate in public or get drunk in public. Have at it. Unless boundaries are enforced — in a reasonable manner, appropriate to the crime — they often will inevitably be exceeded. That’s not an argument for locking everyone up, but it is a case for the citations Bates is authorizing, which carry consequences not just for offenders but for their parents, too, in certain cases.
It’s disappointing that the State’s Attorney’s Office does not yet have a clear way to monitor the program’s outcomes and implementation — to determine, for example, whether certain neighborhoods or traditionally marginalized groups are being targeted for enforcement. And we expect a system to be put in place soon. But that’s not reason to delay this overdue effort. Are we certain that the plan will succeed? Let’s say we’re hopeful.
Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.