Baltimore state attorney Marilyn Mosby speaks on the violence of officers involved in the arrest of a man who later died of injuries he sustained while in custody in Baltimore, Md., May 1, 2015. (Adrees Latif/Reuters)
The Baltimore Prosecutor’s Plan to Decriminalize Crime
Originally published in National Review
Marilyn Mosby’s misleading stats, shamelessness, and incompetence wreak havoc.
In late March, Baltimore’s chief prosecutor, Marilyn Mosby, stepped to the microphone and triumphantly announced: “Today, America’s war on drug users is over in the city of Baltimore. We leave behind the era of tough-on-crime prosecution and zero-tolerance policing.” Mosby will also allow prostitution, trespassing, open alcoholic containers, urinating and defecating in public, and “attempted” drug distribution.
The reaction from the “de-carceral” left and news media was effusive, suggesting that Charm City’s state’s attorney (its elected district attorney) had offered the nation a model, since Baltimore’s violent crime dropped last year as it rose nationally.
The truth is that Mosby’s plan, which she justifies with misleading statistics and glaring omissions, promises to make the city even more of a hellscape than it already is — a blighted, crime-and-corruption-ridden set that would be perfect for Hollywood’s next post-apocalyptic blockbuster. Mosby’s policy is a recipe for even more human misery, not a humane alternative to vice and violence.
The state’s attorney presides over America’s big-city murder capital, with one out of every 300 residents murdered under her six-year watch. Mosby is convinced that the cure to Baltimore’s violent ills is to legalize open-air drug markets, street-corner brothels, and above-ground sewers.
Touting the success of her libertine experiment, in a manner reminiscent of the “Hamsterdam” story arc in David Simon’s HBO show The Wire, Mosby reeled off statistics to prove her case, with violent crime down 20 percent and property crime down 36 percent since mid March 2020, when Mosby declared a free-for-all on so-called nuisance offenses that she said “pose no threat to public safety.”
Mosby said she was making permanent a temporary policy to exercise prosecutorial discretion that she ushered in in March 2020 amidst the initial COVID-19 lockdown. After dismissing over 1,400 cases and quashing another 1,400 warrants for such crimes, Mosby bragged that 18 percent fewer individuals were incarcerated in Baltimore year-on-year.
Mosby the Miracle Worker, you say? Hold on.
In fact, the year before Mosby took office, Baltimore logged 211 murders in a city with a population under 600,000 and falling. That equates to a homicide rate of 35 per 100,000 residents. It has climbed past 300 for each year Mosby has been the chief prosecutor, hitting 348 killings in 2019, for a rate of 59 per 100,000 — a 65 percent increase since 2014.
Last year, with 335 murders, the city clocked in at 57 homicides per 100,000 — twice the rate of Mexico and three times as high as Guatemala and El Salvador. That still shows a 59 percent murder increase under Mosby.
A libertine utopia Baltimore isn’t. And Mosby’s selective data hides the bloody truth of Charm City crime, as she manipulates the media and public’s understanding of what constitutes a violent crime.
According to the FBI, four offenses make up the “violent crime” figure: murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault (including shootings). Depending on the year, the last two categories combined make up 80 to 90 percent of all violent crime in Baltimore or any major city. Their volume means that even a modest shift in those numbers swings the overall violent crime rate wildly.
For March to March, Baltimore saw robberies decline 38 percent and street robberies (the largest share of Baltimore’s robberies) fall by 48 percent. That is 1,600 fewer muggings, which alone accounts for nearly 70 percent of Baltimore’s violent-crime drop. All robberies combined make up 83 percent of the decline. This is hardly surprising, since with pandemic lockdowns and closures in place, stick-up artists had far fewer targets on whom to ply their trade. That trend is consistent with this year’s 14 percent decline in robberies across similarly sized cities.
Under Mosby’s tenure, violent crime did not fall. In fact, it skyrocketed by 33 percent before last year. And that’s because she’s not very good at her job. While she publicly claims an astounding 93 percent felony conviction rate — 85 percent for homicide, 91 percent for gun crimes, and 98 percent for narcotics — she fails to mention that those numbers exclude cases that she dismissed while claiming credit for convictions on a lesser charge, including in homicide cases. If the denominator is small enough, Mosby looks impressive. But the truth is more sanguine.
She drops or loses more than 40 percent of her felony cases and fails to prosecute and imprison gun offenders. Shockingly, in 2018, Mosby secured convictions for only 18 percent of “felon in possession of a firearm” cases — a known precursor offense to violence. Even worse, of those convicted, most don’t see the inside of a jail cell for long, or even at all, despite Maryland’s statutory five-year minimum sentence. An analysis by the Baltimore Sun showed that 43 percent received less than a year in jail and 13 percent got no jail time at all.
And for homicide, Mosby isn’t getting very impressive results. Of the 202 murder cases resolved since 2017 (out of 1,300 murders in that period and 2,000 since she became state’s attorney), Mosby has secured guilty verdicts in 38 percent of them, while pleading out another 26 percent. Many of those pleas received lesser-charge convictions, including gun possession and obstruction of justice, as well as light sentences, in some cases only a few months in prison.
Meanwhile, Mosby’s refusal to prosecute so-called “victimless crimes,” such as prostitution and drug possession, obscures the bleak reality in Charm City. The drug of choice isn’t pot but heroin — now laced with highly dangerous fentanyl. And contrary to Mosby’s claim that addicts will benefit from her new leniency, fatal opioid overdoses, which were already extremely high in Baltimore, jumped by 17 percent in the six months after her order.
But Mosby went further and extended her non-prosecution to “attempted distribution,” which is not a Maryland statutory term. Mosby has been equally fuzzy on whether there is a possession threshold.
In a telling exchange at a city-council hearing after Mosby’s announcement, one councilman asked the police commissioner: “If someone is walking around downtown with a backpack with three bricks of cocaine, I’m assuming that you will arrest them versus if someone is walking around downtown with three grams of cocaine, I’m assuming that you will not arrest them.”
The city’s top cop replied: “I don’t know that the state’s attorney has defined the threshold other than I do recall her saying simple possession in any amount.”
The sky’s the limit!
Now Baltimore’s DA allows sex workers to walk the streets without fear of police harassment. Shame on those taxpaying homeowners who disapprove of open-air brothels clogging their streets with used condoms and lecherous men! Meanwhile, sex workers are themselves often controlled by human traffickers and pimps and addicted to hard drugs, with no recourse to escape.
Forcibly removing them from that hell might be the best thing to happen to these desperate women (and men). A trip to the city jail gets them off the streets and away from the predators who employ them and an opportunity to connect with social services. Instead, Mosby plans greater street outreach, presumably in the belief that handing a working girl a business card under the watchful eye of her pimp will be a game changer.
None of this even addresses how useful sex workers and junkies (and small-time dealers) are to the police as informants and witnesses to violent crime. They know the players and the gossip and can go where police can’t. Mosby is stripping police of their leverage to get valuable intelligence needed to nab the real bad guys. As it is, Baltimore police make an arrest in barely a third of the city’s annual killings, and taking the cops’ eyes and ears away won’t likely make their job any easier.
For both addicts and sex workers, there is a better way, but it requires accountability and enforcement. Hawaii’s Steve Alm, previously a judge and now Honolulu’s chief prosecutor, pioneered a program that uses “swift, certain, and fair” incarceration through its “tough love” model. Defendants are assessed and offered treatment or resources and then ordered to meet certain requirements (e.g., staying sober and out of trouble). If they don’t, they immediately receive a preordained term in jail (e.g. 30 days). After their confinement, the process starts again, but the penalties ratchet up. It works — with a 72 percent reduction in drug use and a 55 percent drop in rearrests for participants. Actions should have consequences and accountability matters.
Marilyn Mosby does not agree. Her announcement was curiously timed five days after news broke that federal prosecutors had convened a grand jury to investigate the prosecutor and her husband, who is the city-council president, for financial crimes.
Mosby, a self-declared “progressive change agent,” says she is being persecuted for her politics — by Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’s Justice Department. Previously, she attacked the city’s inspector general for reporting that Mosby, who earns $240,000 a year, was on undisclosed exotic and luxury junkets (e.g., all-expenses-paid trips to Kenya and Portugal) for 20 percent of her work days in 2018 and 2019. Never mind that it was Mosby who requested the probe to clear her after the media discovered discrepancies in Mosby’s filings.
Even as Mosby excuses criminals for their actions, she seeks to blame others for her own woes. A federal judge presiding over her case may not be as forgiving, however. Just in the last five years, two former mayors of Baltimore and a police chief have faced a judge for their own crimes.
Decriminalizing crime will only bring Baltimore more misery. If misery loves company, Baltimore under Mosby is a company town.
SEAN KENNEDY is a visiting fellow at the Maryland Public Policy Institute, a non-partisan think tank based in Rockville, Md., where he studies crime and justice issues.