Black residents are greatly overrepresented in arrests and court cases in the city of Baltimore, details a report by researchers from the University of Maryland and Harvard. And when they looked closer, they found prosecutors often hitting Black defendants with severe charges that were later reduced or dropped.
The report looks at City Circuit Court cases between 2017-2018. Black residents make up 63 percent of Baltimore’s population, but accounted for 83 percent of arrests and 88 percent of Circuit Court cases. The report found Black residents were overrepresented in charges involving violence, firearms and drugs, although white residents were overrepresented in property cases like burglary or theft. Black defendants were also likelier to have prior records, and the researchers tried to determine the extent to which that explained patterns they saw.
This “suggests initial charges for Black defendants may be inflated,” the authors wrote.
Notably, Black defendants were more likely to have felony and more severe charges reduced compared to white defendants. When charged, they were overall less likely to plead guilty, more likely to go to trial, and less likely to be convicted. The researchers explained this “may indicate concerns with the quality of arrests, evidentiary issues, or witness-related concerns.” In other words, prosecutors may be trying to charge Black people excessively, even if they don’t have a strong case.
Black defendants were likelier to face more severe charges than whites when arrested, but not when convicted. This “suggests initial charges for Black defendants may be inflated,” the authors wrote.
“Witness problems,” meaning witnesses could not or would not testify, was the most commonly cited reason for prosecutions not being not pursued. The researchers couldn’t explain why, but urged the office of Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby to investigate further.
The period covered by the report doesn’t include an important period in recent Baltimore history—the COVID-19 pandemic, which brought Mosby’s decision to not prosecute low-level drug possession, paraphernalia or “prostitution” charges. A Johns Hopkins University study, released in October 2021, found that Mosby’s policies reduced harmful and racist arrests, while not resulting in an increase in crime or serious repeat offending.
The new report’s authors caution that more research is needed to examine the data under Mosby’s reforms (which are now under threat, following Mosby’s federal indictment for alleged fraudulent real estate dealings and financial claims).
The report found “no meaningful statistical racial differences” in the overall number of charges filed or the likelihood that charges would be dropped. Although that sounds promising, it also means prosecutors may be overcharging across the board. Cases can be dropped if, for example, forensic tests aren’t able to prove drug or gun charges. But prosecutors may also make charges they know will later get dropped, in order to pressure defendants into taking plea deals.
And when it came to so-called “War Room” charges, the city’s term for serious repeat offenses, the authors found that even when accounting for factors like past criminal histories, Black defendants—and especially young Black men—were more likely than white defendants to face these charges.
“This may reflect implicit associations that link race to stereotypical notions of dangerousness.”
After controlling for factors like prior records and severity of charges, white and Black defendants were about equally likely to be sentenced for different types of charges, and for similar lengths. But Black defendants were more likely to be incarcerated for a firearms or weapons charge. “This may reflect implicit associations that link race to stereotypical notions of dangerousness,” the authors wrote, “or it could result from differences in other case factors,” including the types of weapons used in crimes.
The authors made several recommendations to Mosby’s office, including improving data collection and improving relationships between prosecutors and local communities. “Another reason that witnesses may be reticent to cooperate involves a broader lack of trust in the criminal justice system,” they wrote.
But the biggest change they recommend is an effort to stop prosecutors from filing unnecessary charges that will likely get reduced later. Their findings, they wrote, “[suggest] greater attention be directed at initial filing and screening decisions—the sooner that uncertain cases can be identified and removed from the system, the better for all parties involved.”
Image of Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse in Baltimore via State of Maryland.