In September, citing concerns about Baltimore’s crime rate, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan demanded that the Maryland Office of the Attorney General begin prosecuting more crimes that arise out of Baltimore City. Last week, Attorney General Brian Frosh responded to Governor Hogan’s call with an ask for more than 20 additional prosecutors to handle gang, drug and gun cases in Baltimore.
Governor Hogan’s order was seen by some as a political move meant to undermine State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby and perhaps even Attorney General Frosh. Yet there’s a larger problem at play: If what Governor Hogan and Attorney General Frosh hope to achieve is to reduce crime in Baltimore, more prosecutors and more prosecutions aren’t likely to accomplish that goal.
Many of us tend to think that locking people up will reduce crime by pulling criminals off the street and deterring others from committing future crimes, but research on the impact of decades of tough-on-crime policies tells us this is wrong. It might seem counterintuitive at first blush, but putting people in prison — the ostensible goal of Governor Hogan and Attorney General Frosh’s efforts to increase prosecution and Attorney General Frosh’s request for more prosecutors — simply doesn’t improve public safety. In fact, putting people in prison has little to no impact on crime.
To see why, it’s important to understand the effects of incarceration. Take one of the areas Governor Hogan wants Attorney General Frosh to focus on, drug crimes, as an example. Prosecuting people for drug offenses doesn’t reduce crime, because more often than not, there are many others desperate enough from poverty or addiction to replace those who get locked up.
But what about violent crimes? Won’t pulling violent offenders off the street at least help reduce violent crime? As it turns out, studies suggest that it won’t. In fact, contrary to Governor Hogan’s claim that putting serious offenders behind bars “is vital to our fight against violent crime,”research shows that locking people up even for violent offenses doesn’t make us safer in the long run. The Vera Institute of Justice, for example, recently found that “increased rates of incarceration have no demonstrated effect on violent crime.”
Worse still, locking people up increases the risk that they’ll reoffend. Governor Hogan’s fear will come true: that those who are “released back out onto the streets… [will] commit yet another violent offense.” Yes, that means that incarceration may very well lead to more crime, not less. None of us, including Governor Hogan, want that.
There are many reasons that sending people to prison can lead to more crime, but perhaps the clearest is that incarceration tears apart families and communities, the very support systems that are necessary to prevent people from committing crimes. And, when incarcerated individuals come home, they suffer debilitating secondary consequences like barriers to employment, housing and education. All of these factors increase the likelihood that they will commit future crimes.
So, if more prosecutors and prosecutions aren’t going to solve our crime problem, how can we reduce crime? Well, for starters, we know that Baltimore’s homicides are largely concentrated to its most disadvantaged neighborhoods. Studies tell us that before we can reduce crime, we need to provide support and resources to those communities. Basic interventions, like supporting preschool childhood education, family therapy and other community programming actually work to prevent crime. In fact, researchers at NYU recently found that the development of nonprofit community organizations that provide resources and support like drug treatment, youth and violence interruption programming and employment support to low-income communities led to measurable drops in crime rates. The way to reduce crime, then, is to invest in our most disadvantaged communities, not in more prosecution.
Governor Hogan is right that we desperately need to reduce crime in Baltimore. But should we spend millions on funding Attorney General Frosh’s request for prosecutors? Research tells us that we should instead spend that money on community-based interventions in the neighborhoods that need them most. What we need is an investment in societal interventions that prevent people from committing crime in the first place: education, treatment, housing, employment support and reentry services. Put simply, what we need in Baltimore is not investment in more prosecutors; it’s investment in our people.
Maneka Sinha (email@example.com) is an assistant professor of law at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law and directs the school’s criminal defense clinic.