Fewer arrests took place and there were almost no re-arrests for more serious crimes after the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office implemented a no-prosecution policy for low-level drug and prostitution charges, a new study from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health has found.
The study found that the policy averted hundreds of arrests, particularly among Black residents, though arrests for drug possession have continued at lower rates in the nearly 20 months since the policy was enacted.
State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby in March 2020 ordered prosecutors to dismiss pending charges for drug paraphernalia and possession, prostitution, and other minor offenses as part of an effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in detention centers.
She formalized the policy this year, declaring that her office would dismiss criminal cases for these nonviolent crimes.
Mosby praised the Hopkins study, which her office requested, in a statement.
“This report demonstrates what we have set out to do as an office — reimagine the criminal justice system by promoting healthy communities and no longer criminalizing behavioral health issues that do not pose a public safety threat,” Mosby said.
“The data proves that we must continue to move past the era of tough-on-crime prosecution and zero tolerance policing and no longer just default to the status quo of criminalizing mostly people of color for addiction.”
The no-prosecution policy received praise from legal system reform advocates, but also brought criticism from opponents. Gov. Larry Hogan has been a vocal skeptic, including last week when he announced $150 million in funding for law enforcement agencies and other public safety initiatives.
“The city of Baltimore is a poster child for the basic failure to stop lawlessness,” Hogan said. “There’s a prosecutor who refuses to prosecute crime and there’s a revolving door of repeat offenders who are being let right back out onto the streets to shoot people again and again.”
The Hopkins study shows, however, that re-arrests for more serious crimes were almost nonexistent among people whose drug and prostitution charges were dropped under Mosby’s no-prosecution policy.
Michael Ricci, a spokesperson for Hogan, said in an email that “the Governor’s focus is on holding the State’s Attorney accountable for her failure to prosecute violent crimes.”
He cited the percentage of cases involving violent crimes that the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office dropped in recent years and Baltimore’s homicide rate, which is on track to surpass 300 killings for a seventh year in 2021.
“It doesn’t take an academic study to recognize this is unacceptable,” Ricci said.
Out of 741 individuals whose charges were dropped, the study found that only six, or 0.8 percent, were re-arrested for serious crimes.
“This suggests that the vast majority of direct beneficiaries of the policy change did not go on to commit crimes threatening public safety,” the study concluded.
The study tracked whether beneficiaries of the policy went on to be re-arrested for robbery, murder or manslaughter, gun offenses, assault, sex offenses, carjacking, home invasions, kidnapping, arson or drug distribution.
The Hopkins researchers also estimated that 443 new drug and paraphernalia possession arrests were prevented under the policy, and that 78 percent of the arrests that might otherwise have occurred were averted among Black individuals.
The study shows that prostitution arrests dropped to nearly zero after the policy was put in place. Drug possession arrests have continued but fell significantly after the policy began.
Calls to 911 about drugs and prostitution also declined after the policy took effect.
The study compared arrest rates from before and after the policy was implemented and used other crime data to account for overall changes in crime and policing that occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The study’s authors wrote that the findings are “encouraging” and may support adopting public health approaches in dealing with these low-level offenses.
“These preliminary findings suggest that declining to prosecute low level drug and prostitution offenses may avert arrests among individuals with intersecting vulnerabilities without posing a threat to public safety or resulting in increased public complaints,” the authors wrote.
“Ensuring that these individuals can access health and social service instead of criminal punishment is a public health priority.”
Kirsten Downs, the district public defender for Baltimore City, said her office welcomes a reduction in the number of clients charged with crimes related to substance abuse.
“We hope these non-prosecution policies extend to additional charges with substance abuse or mental health at the core,” she said in an email. “The larger goal is to limit law enforcement involvement where it is not needed and increase access to necessary services and programs.”