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As of Thursday morning, there had been 2,259 homicides in Baltimore during the nearly seven years Marilyn Mosby has been the city’s top prosecutor; that’s an average of around 322 murders a year since 2015. During the four years previous, when Gregg Bernstein was Baltimore state’s attorney, the city averaged 215 homicides a year.
I make the comparison only because, as she campaigned to unseat Bernstein in the 2014 Democratic primary, Mosby criticized him as ineffective and blamed him for the relatively modest increase in city violence, from 197 homicides in 2011 to 211 in 2014.
Blaming a prosecutor for the rate of murders in a city is like blaming the chief of surgery for the rate of heart disease. But, while the reasons for Baltimore’s bloodshed are as complex as the human cardiovascular system, logic insists that a prosecutor’s ability to get convictions of defendants accused of violent crimes is tied, to some extent, to the murder rate.
Mosby effectively laid blame at Bernstein’s door, winning election in 2014 and reelection in 2018. There have been six years of 300-plus homicides during her tenure, and 2021 looks like it could be a seventh.
In the midst of all this violence, Mosby declared an end to the local war on drugs and said her office will no longer prosecute low-level drug offenders or people who commit certain minor crimes, such as having an open container of alcohol, trespassing or urinating and defecating in public.
That decision troubles a lot of people. Some believe Mosby has opened the door to the further degradation of Baltimore life. A landlord on the southeast side told me his tenants are “terrorized” by drug dealers who have little fear that police will break up their East Lombard Street market.
Mike Mancuso, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, says minor crimes need to be prosecuted because they can lead to more serious ones. “Officers certainly do not want to spend their time arresting people for nonviolent crimes,” Mancuso told me, “but when they have to, it needs to be prosecuted. If it’s not, you get what we have now, lawlessness — assaults, drug use in public, drag racing vehicles … cars doing doughnuts in the intersections.”
Part of Mosby’s reasoning, and one by which her approach should be judged, is this: If neither police nor prosecutors have to bother with minor crimes, they can devote more time and effort to serious crimes. If they do that, we should see a reduction in violent offenses.
Mosby dismissed all criminal cases of drug possession, including heroin, during the onset of the pandemic. A year later, noting a reduction in violent incidents and property crimes, she said she would continue her hands-off policy. She based her decision on just one year’s experience and a highly unusual year — 2020, when fewer people were on the streets and available to be victimized. But here we are.
So Baltimoreans should judge Mosby’s approach — and Mosby herself, assuming she’s a candidate for reelection next year — by the results of her policy. If cops make more arrests for violent crimes, then we should expect successful prosecutions, the removal of violent criminals from the streets and a safer city. Right?
It’s too early to tell, but it’s possible this shift in priorities is having some positive effect. Last week, the Baltimore Police Department released a list of recent arrests for homicides and nonfatal shootings. Those who think the cops have long blue flu, dating back six years to the Freddie Gray uprising, should note: There were 37 arrests in homicides and nonfatal shootings between mid-August and the first week of October.
All but one of the 11 arrests in homicides — and all but two of the 26 arrests in nonfatal shootings — were for incidents this year. That might mean detectives are clearing cases faster, and that, in turn, might mean they are getting more help from citizens who witness crimes or have information about them.
“More officers are focused on violent crimes,” Police Commissioner Michael Harrison told me. “We’re building trust and legitimacy with the public, and getting more tips. We’re doing a better job clearing cases, but we’d like to do even better.”
The police department says its clearance rate for homicides is now about 43% — not great but better than the recent past.
Allowing more cops to focus on serious crimes while setting up a public health response to behavioral problems (drug addiction, prostitution) is a major criminal justice reform that progressives have been after for years. It’s hard to knock the intent.
Violence is still a huge problem, but the trend in homicides seems to be steady, not getting worse. That sounds like spin, as if 300-plus homicides a year is acceptable in a city of under 600,000. But I mean nothing like that. I’m just acknowledging facts, with a nod to the cops for some progress they appear to be making. In fact, shortly after the BPD released its compilation of recent arrests, the department reported another one — a 35-year-old man charged with a September murder in Cherry Hill.
It’s up to Mosby’s staff to do the rest. Baltimoreans expect to see fewer homicides in the coming years.
Will that happen? Progressive prosecution sounds great — deal with criminals in the criminal justice system, leave people with behavioral problems to the health professionals — but will it work?
More in my next column.