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Baltimore crime initiatives a good start, but do they go far enough? | GUEST COMMENTARY

Mayor Brandon Scott, in blue top, and police commissioner Michael Harrison, at right, join other officials inside the crime scene on Baltimore and Holliday streets Thursday morning around 4:45 p.m.
Mayor Brandon Scott, in blue top, and police commissioner Michael Harrison, at right, join other officials inside the crime scene on Baltimore and Holliday streets Thursday morning around 4:45 p.m. (KARL MERTON FERRON/BALTIMORE SUN)

I grew up in Park Heights, the same neighborhood where Mayor Brandon Scott announced that Baltimore will use $50 million in federal COVID relief money to fund collaborative gun violence prevention initiatives. Mayor Scott’s announcement comes on the heels of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s 14-month study that found less than a 1% increase in violent crime and no threat to public safety as a result of Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby’s March 2020 decision to decline prosecution of drug possession and prostitution cases. Both efforts give me hope that Baltimore will change the trajectory of its gun violence statistics.

As a former Baltimore prosecutor, I understand gun violence issues in the criminal justice system and what must be done to create meaningful reforms. For all the criticism against Marilyn Mosby and her reform efforts as a failure to address violent crime, Baltimore stood alone in 2020 with its homicide rate on the decline by 4%. On a nationwide basis, other major cities saw a spike in violent crime and an increase of homicides, which rose by 25% in 2020. Of course, the large gun violence and homicide numbers still haunt Baltimore in 2021. Baltimore prosecutors must spend more time on gun violence, homicide and other violent cases and less time on misdemeanor low level crimes. Misdemeanors account nationwide for 80% of all state court dockets.

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When I prosecuted, the priority centered on convictions with little regard for anything else. A guilty plea, guilty verdict or jail time meant justice was served — case closed. Mayor Scott’s innovative approach will look beyond the courtroom and provide services to returning citizens. A planned contract with Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services would provide for preemployment services before prison release and jobs upon release with a minimum of $15 an hour. This type of initiative will go a long way toward the prevention of the revolving door of crime often faced by prosecutors in urban cities.

Other cities recognize that a collaborative approach is the route toward a decrease in gun violence. On Oct. 25, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner announced the opening of a new facility supported by a collective of community organizations to offer services to help address gun violence, curb gun violence and assist victims of gun violence.

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Progressive lawmakers like Ms. Mosby and Mr. Krasner often face challenges in an attempt to turn a criminal justice system on its ear — a system that disproportionately impacts Black Americans. In office less than one year, Mayor Scott faces harsh criticism from foes and allies on his handling of gun violence. Baltimore State’s Attorney Mosby and Mayor Scott’s goal is a simple one — to end the cycle of gun violence in Baltimore. The efforts utilized by each one differs but the intended result is the same.

While Mayor Scott’s initiatives and State’s Attorney Mosby’s reforms are a good start, I question whether these policies go far enough. In order to cure the ills that affect Baltimore from a criminal justice and social justice perspective, elected officials, community organizations, corporations, other institutions, health professionals and citizens must argue less and collectively work to ensure that programs are offered to prevent persons who might commit crimes and assist victims of crime. I know from my prosecutorial experience that many defendants who commit crimes often have mental or physical health challenges, substance abuse issues, lack of access to health care services, economic challenges, housing issues, lack of education and employment needs.

For meaningful criminal justice reform and to stymie the gun violence that plagues Baltimore City, State’s Attorney Mosby, Mayor Scott, community leaders, nonprofits and corporations must join forces to work together. A collaborative approach will make a major difference.

Deborah Hines (debbie@legalspeaks.com; Twitter: @iamdebbiehines) is a former Baltimore prosecutor and a former assistant attorney general for Maryland. She currently runs a private practice out of Baltimore and Washington D.C.

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