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Pandemic has shown we can reduce arrests without an uptick in crime | COMMENTARY

Marilyn Mosby, Baltimore City State's Attorney, speaks to the media about hiring a public defender as part of an effort to free elderly prisoners. December 7, 2020
Marilyn Mosby, Baltimore City State's Attorney, speaks to the media about hiring a public defender as part of an effort to free elderly prisoners. December 7, 2020 (Tim Prudente/Baltimore Sun)

COVID-19 has laid bare many societal challenges, including those in our criminal justice system. How can we continue to incarcerate people for petty offenses at a time when sending someone to prison can be a death sentence? The Sun’s recent article showing a reduction in arrests and prosecutions in Baltimore City, with no discernible uptick in crime, shows that we can be smart about crime, protect public health, and promote public safety simultaneously.

I policed the streets of Baltimore for 27 years and spent seven of those years as the executive officer for the Chief of Patrol. I led a plainclothes squad that performed drug enforcement. To this day, I am dismayed by the consequences of our drug laws. The nature of the drug war means that while we were able to make arrests, drug sellers would be immediately replaced and drug sales continued. Meanwhile, some competitors in the drug market would resort to violence to determine who would replace the people we arrested. Innocent bystanders got hurt. This was as true then as it is today.

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Too often, low-income people and people of color whose only crime was drug use got wrapped up in the criminal justice system, saddled with the scarlet letter of a criminal record for possessing or selling small amounts of drugs. We filled our prisons with people accused of low-level crimes and offenses stemming from quality of life problems, all while doing nothing to stop the supply of drugs into our city. This approach has been a disaster in every sense of the word.

COVID-19 has forced the city to undergo an experiment. Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced in mid-March, as the pandemic was taking hold, that her office would stop prosecuting minor offenses such as drug possession and sex work. The idea was to reduce the flow of people entering jails and prisons. She also worked to push Governor Hogan to release people and recently opened a Sentencing Review Unit for similar reasons. Baltimore Police Chief Michael Harrison followed suit, recognizing that his officers should stop making arrests for minor offenses.

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While homicides only slightly dipped in 2020, “Baltimore experienced steep drops in most crime categories,” according to The Sun. The writers therefore ask a pertinent question: Does the effort to all but eliminate arrests for lower-level offenses show that the city can continue not prosecuting such cases without an increase in crime? The article contains quotes from worried community association members, but anecdotes are not evidence. Instead, the data points to the city’s success.

The killings of young Black people in our country at the hands of police also demonstrate a need for reform that goes beyond the current COVID crisis. George Floyd was stopped over a suspected counterfeit note. Eric Garner was arrested for selling loose cigarettes. Sandra Bland was pulled over for a minor driving offense. In addition to the public health incentives of not prosecuting low-level offenses during the pandemic, citizens must recognize that not arresting and prosecuting people for minor offenses — like drug possession and sex work — can improve the strained community relations that exist between the police and communities of color.

COVID-19 remains a major threat to those who reside and work in correctional facilities as evidenced by the Christmas Eve announcement that two people in prison died of COVID-19. Elected officials and justice system leaders should be applauded for their actions in reducing the incarcerated population, and the data show that their experiment has been a success. We can promote public health and public safety and must continue to do so.

Mike Hilliard (mhhill2000@yahoo.com) is a retired major and 27-year police veteran of the Baltimore Police Department, and a representative of Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), a nonprofit group of police and other criminal justice professionals who use their expertise to advance evidence-based public safety solutions.

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