Baltimore has had more homicides per capita than Chicago, more homicides total than New York and is on track to have the highest number of murders ever in the city’s history. All of our leaders talk about reforming the criminal justice system, targeting violent repeat offenders, and working with the community, but not one of them has outlined how with any specificity.
As a former prosecutor now working in private practice, I propose the three ideas for the public’s and the government’s consideration:
1. Have prosecutors work in police stations for both day and evening shifts. This will lead to better cases against violent offenders. Prosecutors can interview witnesses, guide the investigation, make offers for information and cooperation, and ensure that evidence is preserved for court. Prosecutors also will add a layer of supervision to make sure that the objectives of the consent decree between Baltimore police and the Department of Justice are implemented, and they can answer questions about what is legally permissible.
2. Have prosecutors make immediate offers of community service for low level offenses.
Prosecutors in police stations will be available to make offers of community service for low level, non-victim crimes. In 2014, 72 percent — or 19,409 district court cases — were expungable, meaning they were dismissed in exchange for community service or the defendant’s completion of a program, a probation before judgment was imposed, or the defendant was found not guilty.
Having prosecutors negotiate immediate and fair offers benefits both the defendant and the community. Instead of the defendant spending time in jail, arranging bail, finding an attorney and appearing in court, they could avoid all of this, as well as the possibility of incarceration, by agreeing to complete a substantial number of community service hours. Upon successful completion of the community service, the charges would be dropped. Defendants would have no convictions on their record, helping them keep or apply for jobs. If a defendant does not accept the proposal or does not complete the community service, the case can be brought to court and proceed in the traditional manner.
The community benefits not only through the service performed, but by redirecting resources to victim crimes. Police and prosecutors can spend more time on violent crimes instead of using hours and overtime for nonviolent cases. Moreover, studies have shown that offenders who are incarcerated for brief periods of time are more than twice as likely to reoffend when compared to similarly situated offenders who are given community service. In other words, this plan would not only allow for law enforcement resources to be directed to critical areas, it would also reduce future crime rates by reducing recidivism.
This method would not be appropriate for violent repeat offenders. But the vast majority of people who interact with the criminal justice system are not violent. It is time to stop treating all defendants with the same broad brush and start having our prosecutors craft effective ways of holding offenders accountable.
3. Use community service workers to reduce crime.
A 2015 study in Philadelphia, Pa., found that in areas where windows and doors were replaced on vacant houses and vacant lots were improved, gun crime was reduced by 39 percent. For every dollar the city invested in fixing houses, it saved $5 in gun crime costs. The return on investment for improving vacant lots was $26 for every dollar spent.
An initiative in Massachusetts focused on repairing housing, providing social services and treatment, and increasing misdemeanor arrests. The results were a 20 percent reduction in overall crime — including violent crimes. Interestingly, the study found that increasing misdemeanor arrests had no effect on crime and providing services and treatment had a minor impact. The biggest factor in reducing crime was improving the physical condition of the neighborhood.
Gov. Larry Hogan and the city have embarked on a $700 million plan to demolish or rehab vacant houses. The biggest cost in rehabbing houses is labor. If offenders through the community service diversion program were part of the rehab effort, the funds could be stretched further and the goals could be accomplished sooner.
This program can improve the community’s relationship with law enforcement and its perception of the criminal justice system while reducing crime and revitalizing the city. We have known for years that mass incarceration does not work; similarly, probation is of limited value. This program will allow offenders to repay their debt to society in a constructive manner.
With the race for Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office underway, I encourage every resident to ask the candidates how they are going to change the system. Baltimore is in a crime crisis; we need a workable plan, not platitudes and pop-up parties. The success of the state’s attorney’s office should not be measured in convictions but in benefits to the community.
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