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What an Ivan Bates victory means for the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office

Ivan Bates will take over a Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office that has struggled with staffing issues. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

Ivan Bates will be Baltimore’s next top prosecutor after officially winning the race for city state’s attorney, a post he has been widely expected to secure since his victory in a tough three-way primary this summer.

Bates was unopposed in the general election. Early returns Tuesday night showed he was reaping 98% of the vote against a write-in option.

He had defeated two-term incumbent Marilyn Mosby, who has been a magnet for controversy, in the Democratic primary this July.

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Bates’ victory marks a major change in the city’s approach to crime. Bates contrasted himself from Mosby by pledging to restart prosecutions of low-level crimes, which Mosby halted during the pandemic, and to pursue jail time in all illegal gun possession cases.

The primary showed that voters were ready for change, said Roger Hartley, the dean of the University of Baltimore’s College of Public Affairs.

“It was an extraordinary victory,” Hartley said. “I think it was based on an interest in change in the workings of the office.”

Bates, Hartley said, has a “major opportunity is to restore a sense of legitimacy and exciting purpose to the office for those who were looking for change.”

Mosby, who first took office in a 2014 upset, framed herself as a “progressive prosecutor” who would look for alternatives to incarceration in certain cases. For example, her office stopped prosecuting low-level offenses, such as drug possession and prostitution, during the pandemic.

A 2021 study found there were few rearrests for more serious crimes after the policy was implemented, but business owners and some residents criticized the policy as encouraging lawlessness.

Bates has said he will reverse the nonprosecution policy and seek jail time in all illegal gun possession cases. He also wants to begin pursuing charges against squeegee workers, who often approach vehicles in traffic to offer a window cleaning, if they don’t accept services and stop the practice.

Hartley said Bates will have to work quickly to build the political capital to make difficult choices.

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Fulfilling those promises that he made on the campaign trail will bring legitimacy, but it will also bring conflict,” he said.

Heather Warnken, the executive director of the University of Baltimore School of Law’s Center for Criminal Justice Reform, warned that using incarceration more extensively could have painful consequences for the city’s most vulnerable people.

“We have to have humility about the limits of the criminal justice system in addressing these public safety challenges,” Warnken said. “Taking such a hard line about, for example, gun possession equals jail, fails to take into consideration the very real reasons why people feel vulnerable and possess guns in the first place.”

Bates has said he supports alternatives to incarceration in some cases — squeegee workers, for example, might be offered a warning and an opportunity to enter a diversion program before facing more serious consequences. Bates also wants to institute a “community court” to handle low-level offenses and offer resources.

Warnken said tying social services to legal consequences can still harm vulnerable people by putting them into the criminal justice system.

“I think we have to be honest about what the system can and cannot accomplish, and we have a very long way to go in building up the services and infrastructure of care for these same residents that he’s talking about,” she said.

Bates will also have to rebuild the State’s Attorney’s Office, which under Mosby faced persistent staffing problems, and contend with his predecessor’s legacy. Mosby was a polarizing figure from early in her first term, when she brought charges against the police officers who were involved arresting Freddie Gray, who died from injuries sustained in police custody in 2015.

Mosby is now under indictment in federal court on charges of perjury and mortgage fraud. Prosecutors allege that Mosby lied about suffering a coronavirus-related financial setback in order to withdraw $90,000 from her city retirement account in 2020. She is also accused of failing to disclose a $45,000 IRS lien and making other false statements when she applied for mortgages on two Florida vacation homes.

Mosby also sparred with other elected officials, especially Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican. Bates is likely to have an easier relationship with Wes Moore, a Democrat who won the race for Maryland governor.

“There’s a massive opportunity for Ivan Bates to build strong ties with the new governor, who will almost definitely have a different perspective on Baltimore,” Hartley said.

Voters will expect Bates to be visible and active in the fight against violent crime, Hartley said. Warnken said Bates has a mandate to address Baltimore’s crime problem — but that doesn’t necessarily mean turning to more incarceration.

“I think that’s a mandate to be serious about addressing and reducing crime in this city, especially violence, and I think really doing that means having the courage to look at the evidence about what we know works, and that’s not relying on incarceration as the answer to this problem.”