Baltimore Study Boosts Movements to Decriminalize Drugs and Sex Work

    Replication is of paramount importance, in the sciences, in determining whether an earlier research was a fluke or says something generally true about the world. As a textbook from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine puts it, “When the result from one study is found to be consistent by another study, it is more likely to represent a reliable claim to new knowledge.”

    Earlier this year, three professors working with the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) published their study on Suffolk County (Boston) District Attorney Rachael Rollins’ default policy of declining to charge a slew of misdemeanor offenses. Their conclusion was that “the likelihood of future criminal justice involvement fell, with no apparent increase in local crime rates.”

    It was a finding that “tough-on-crime” adherents naturally attempted to minimize. But taking that line just became a whole lot harder.

    A new report is the cumulation of a 14-month study on Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby’s March 2020 decision to no longer prosecute low-level drug possession and drug paraphernalia charges, as well as “prostitution” charges. Mosby has already announced her intention for this COVID-era policy to remain in place, even after the pandemic slows or halts.

    Only six out of 741 people whose charges were dropped were later rearrested for “serious crimes”—less than 1 percent.

    The results of the research, conducted by the Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health (JHU), fit squarely with NBER’s findings. Mosby’s new policy emphatically did not jeopardize public safety, while significantly reducing harmful and racist criminalization.

    An estimated 443 arrests were averted in the 14-month period after the policy was adopted in Baltimore. Seventy-eight percent of the people whose arrests were prevented were Black, in a city that is 63 percent Black according to the 2010 census. And only six out of 741 people whose charges were dropped under Mosby’s policy were later rearrested for “serious crimes, such as robbery and assault,” the authors found—less than 1 percent.

    “Though causality cannot be established,” the report summarizes, “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. Ensuring that these individuals can access health and social service instead of criminal punishment is a public health priority.”

    State’s Attorney Mosby applauded these conclusions, even if they’re unlikely to have surprised her.

    “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,” she told Filter. “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. I appreciate the hard work and detailed analysis by the Johns Hopkins research team.”

    Interestingly, unlike the NBER report, the JHU report examines the impact of the DA’s announcement on the police, rather than focusing mainly on the decision of whether to charge. There is significant debate about who are the most powerful actors in the criminal-legal system, with the main contenders being police, judges and prosecutors. In some jurisdictions, the DA announcing a plan to use discretion to decriminalize a specific offense has not led to police responding in kind. For instance, in Harris County, which covers the Houston, Texas metro area, many in-county police departments continued to arrest people for low-level cannabis possession without offering DA Kim Ogg’s new diversion program.

    There is no doubt that the findings will help the movements to decriminalize drugs and sex work.

    However, in Baltimore, arrests for the offenses Mosby said she would no longer prosecute plummeted, as did complaints relating to these offenses. The police chief, Michael Harrison, even worked to “socialize” his officers to this approach, making the case for why they should follow the policy even if they did not agree with it.

    There is no doubt that the JHU study’s findings will help the movement to decriminalize drugs—which won its biggest US victory so far in Oregon last November—and the related movement to decriminalize sex work. The findings also lend support to the so-called “progressive prosecutor” movement, of which decriminalizing low-level, non-violent charges is an important part. When it comes to these issues, public safety data, like ethics, are firmly on the side of progress.

    The findings also represent a moral victory for Mosby and Rollins, who are both Black women seeking to transform a racist justice system. Mosby cited racial justice concerns as an important reason for the new policy, because people of color are disproportionately targeted by police and prosecutors, and JHU’s findings about Black arrests averted underlined her pont.

    Black women are vastly underrepresented in the ranks of the nation’s elected prosecutors. A 2014 report from the Women Donors Network found that 94 percent of DAs were white, and 79 percent were white men. While blazing trails, Mosby and Rollins have been targeted for even worse vitriol than other progressive prosecutors, who get plenty of scorching unfair criticism. Mosby herself has publicly shared evidence of the hateful, racist backlash she has received.

    The release of the JHU report should bring hope to all who campaign for decriminalization (or legalization)—and, therefore, to millions who have been subjected to vindictive, targeted law enforcement for so long.



    Photograph by Baltex18 via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 4.0

    • Rory is the founding attorney of Fleming Law LLC, an immigration law boutique in Philadelphia. He has worked for a variety of criminal justice and harm reduction nonprofits, including Law Enforcement Action Partnership and Harvard Law School’s Fair Punishment Project, and provided campaign services for over a dozen district attorney campaigns. His articles have appeared in the Atlantic, Slate and many other outlets.

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