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Don't stop at marijuana, Baltimore

An art exhibit in Pigtown shows portraits created by three artists of eight women sex workers in an attempt to humanize them. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun video)

To truly reform Baltimore's justice system and protect black communities from systematic persecution and criminalization, Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby must refuse to prosecute all non-violent, low-level offenses that unnecessarily clog the courts — not just the marijuana possession cases.

Next on her list, specifically, should be dropping the prosecution of sex workers — one of the most pushed aside, uncomfortable and least examined topics in Baltimore City.

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Prostitution is one of the most disproportionately enforced low level offenses in Baltimore City. It systematically criminalizes street sex workers, who are often women of color, transgender or immigrants and who are more likely than other groups to be victims of violent crimes, such as rape. They are constantly subjected to police harassment and incarcerated at a much higher rate than other groups of low level offenders.

Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby holds a Court in the Community event on Rethinking Marijuana Prosecutions on Wednesday night at Baltimore City Community College. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun video)

In an effort to bandage the problem, Baltimore City officials sought to offer programs to those charged with low level drug offenses and prostitution, alike. However, such programs are rarely offered in lieu prosecution to sex workers. More often, such programs are mandated as a condition of probation and only offered after the accused has been booked, charged and criminalized.

Continuing to prosecute sex workers only perpetuates the fear and growing disconnect between black poor communities and law enforcement agencies. Ms. Mosby is correct in her belief that the prosecution of individuals for possession of marijuana is a "vast and ongoing moral failure," but so is the continued prosecution of sex workers.

One cannot expect sex workers, who are inherently victims themselves, to seek refuge within an agency that hangs incarceration and convictions over their heads. There is no moral value in prosecuting the very people whom the law is designed to protect.

If Ms. Mosby is truly as committed to rehabilitation and restoration as she outlined in her recent white paper regarding marijuana prosecution, her office also must consider an alternative to prosecuting sex workers. The resources spent on prosecuting sex workers should be redirected to long-term, sustainable services.

According to one study, a majority of sex workers in the U.S. report wanting to leave street work but feeling unable to do so because of a lack of money and food. In Baltimore City, the majority of prostitution cases involve women in need of drug treatment, mental health services, housing and child care. Based on my experience from working as a public defender here in the city, sex workers are desperate for long-term resources available to escape the realities of poverty, unemployment and victimization. But the fear of prosecution and collateral consequences often prevents workers from seeking help.

Providing long-term services instead of prosecution could also lead to a significant reduction in violent crimes in Baltimore City. Research published in the Review of Economic Studies found that when prostitution was decriminalized in Rhode Island, sexual violence fell by 30 percent, and the state saw an improvement in public health outcomes. If Ms. Mosby's office refuses to enforce prostitution laws, the legislature could be forced to take a serious look at the possible benefits of decriminalization.

While Maryland is no Rhode Island, what do we have to lose by giving it a shot?

Folasade Omogun (fomogun@gmail.com) is a public defender in the Maryland Office of the Public Defender.

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