The Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office plays a critical role in the administration of criminal justice in the city, prosecuting tens of thousands of cases every year, advocating for legislation to better serve victims of crime and connecting with communities to build the bonds of trust necessary to win convictions against the violent repeat offenders who terrorize our streets.
The work is never-ending and grueling, particularly during the past seven years since Freddie Gray was fatally injured while in Baltimore police custody in 2015. In that time, more than 2,400 people have been killed in Baltimore City at a rate of more than 300 per year, the worst stretch of lethal violence the city has ever seen. Just this past weekend, five people were killed over three days, and at least 10 others were shot. And on the Thursday before, a 25-year-old U.S. Army Reserve officer — a father of two — lost his life in a storm of gunfire downtown.
Such violence has focused a searing spotlight on the agencies charged with ensuring Baltimore’s public safety, including the State’s Attorney’s Office. Its role is central in the multipronged fight against crime, with prosecutors often acting as points of connection for stakeholders: law enforcement agencies, social service providers, community organizations, victims, business owners and concerned city residents, among others.
And while the impact of the office and its leader on violence reduction can be difficult to quantify — the effects of deterrence, diversionary programs and community engagement come with no easy measures — the state’s attorney is directly responsible for setting the direction, tone, values and culture of the office.
Today, the office is in turmoil.
Stretched thin for decades, it’s recently lost a significant number of attorneys — 35% just since 2018, dropping to 133 from 206, according to a Sun analysis of records. The staff is younger and less experienced than it was in 2014, and the caseload is as high and demanding as ever. The pandemic certainly deserves some of the blame for the exodus — it’s spurring resignations in stressed industries all over the country — as does the difficulty of the time-consuming work and the failure of office salaries to reflect that.
Despite this, the conviction rate within the office has remained relatively steady for the past dozen years, spanning the tenure of three separate state’s attorneys, according to data supplied by the office. That is an achievement. But, unfortunately, steady has never been good enough in Baltimore, and it’s certainly not now.
The Baltimore State’s Attorney’s office needs to be rebuilt, re-energized and refocused on its mission. To do that, it needs a person at the top whose sole ambition is to serve as state’s attorney, as it’s going to take years to reverse the office’s decline; someone who is well-known in Baltimore communities and well respected by colleagues, who can attract good people eager to do this very important work; and someone who listens to others and values collaboration, understanding that they can’t do it all themselves.
Of the three candidates vying to run this office, incumbent Marilyn Mosby, who’s held the post since 2015, and challenger Thiru Vignarajah are both dynamic individuals with vision. But it is Ivan Bates who best represents what the office needs now: a stabilizing force whom others want to work for and with. He has our endorsement in the Democratic primary.
Mr. Bates brings 25 years of prosecutorial and defense experience to the role, a keen understanding of the challenges Baltimore faces and strong support among both prosecutors and defense attorneys in the city. He has been the managing partner of his own defense firm for the past 15 years, and he is driven by an overarching goal we can all understand: to make the city a safer place for his daughter to thrive.
The regular attacks on Ms. Mosby’s character and performance — some of which we absolutely believe are politically, and perhaps racially, motivated — have put her in the position of frequently defending her actions on issues ranging from unpaid taxes to the development of side businesses. And too often, her explanations fall short. Now, she’s under federal indictment, criminally charged with perjury and making false statements in connection with the purchase of two homes in Florida. What are voters to make of this? If she wins the election, she could still be convicted and removed from office. While she, like those her office prosecutes, is innocent unless proven otherwise, that’s a risk that Baltimore can’t afford to take. She had the power to settle the uncertainty by moving forward with her trial on May 2, as originally scheduled, but instead, her defense lawyers sought a postponement until September, leaving the future of the office under her unknown.
Mr. Vignarajah, too, has distractions. Among them is the call of the mayor’s office, a position he has previously run for. And while his legal experience is solid — working as an assistant U.S. attorney, chief of major investigations in the Baltimore prosecutor’s office and as a deputy attorney general, among other positions — his time in each role has been relatively short. The city needs a Baltimore State’s Attorney who is likely to stick around for the long haul.
Public safety and the effective functioning of public offices are among the most important factors in the success of Baltimore City. The State’s Attorney’s Office should be a place where the best and brightest young attorneys and seasoned veterans compete to be. It provides a fertile training ground, and work that is some of the most important and rewarding that the city can offer. Mr. Bates understands that, and we trust he will move the office forward.
Editor’s note: There are no Republican candidates running for the primary nomination.
Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.