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Non-Prosecution Policies Seem to Work in Baltimore

by Jayson Hawkins 

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic is credited with accelerating many trends that were already emerging before the plague struck. From work-at-home to mRNA vaccines, many of these new trends seem to have won a permanent place in the new normal. While working via Zoom might not raise the passions of advocates or opponents, another far more controversial set of trends seems to be staking out places for themselves in the post-pandemic world of criminal justice reform—the non-prosecution of low-level drug and prostitution offenses.

The push to treat drug and prostitution as public health problems, especially in poor and over-policed communities of color, has long been a goal of social justice advocates, but it took a pandemic to make these goals a reality in some select cities across the country.

In March 2020, Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced that the city would stop prosecuting low level drug and prostitution offenses as part of their infection reduction efforts in jails and prisons. Even though many critics predicted crime waves, the city recently announced the policy would remain in place post-pandemic both because it seemed to have no connection with higher crime and eased pressure on courts, police, and communities. A study published by researchers at Johns Hopkins University seems to confirm the city’s conclusions. The study analyzed data from arrest rates to the subsequent behavior of people released from jail after Mosby’s announcement.

Of the 741 people whose charges were dropped under the policy, only six (0.8 %) were arrested in the subsequent year for a serious crime. The study estimated that 443 arrests were averted during the period, nearly 80% of which would have occurred in Black communities. What, if any, effect the policy will have on long-term crime rates or the overall quality of life in poor, over-policed communities is unclear. The researchers are hopeful their data will not only encourage other cities to follow Baltimore’s example but also push the effort to the next level.

“We think the next step is to start a dialogue about providing public health services to these people who are no longer getting arrested,” researcher Susan Sherman, PhD, said. “We should now be asking, is there a sufficient safety net of harm reduction services, treatment, and social services to meet the needs of people who are no longer getting arrested?”  


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