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Baltimore's Attempt to Reduce Petty Crime Is Off to a Slow Start

The new state’s Attorney Ivan Bates had announced June 1 that he would resume prosecuting petty crimes, like drinking in public. His goal is to hold people accountable for quality-of-life crimes.

It was around midday that Dallis Glover walked along North Eutaw Street, just past Lexington Market in downtown Baltimore, carrying a 25-ounce can of Natural Ice beer in late June.

Glover, 59, was a block from his home in the Paca House Apartments, which provides supportive housing for residents with low incomes. He had quit his job while grieving the recent deaths of his mother and fiancee, and found himself relying on alcohol to dull his pain. He didn’t know new State’s Attorney Ivan Bates had announced June 1 that he would resume prosecuting petty crimes, like drinking in public.

When a Maryland Transit Administration Police officer approached him, Glover said, he tried tossing the beer in a trash can, but the officer grabbed his hand. Officer Courtney Green wrote a criminal citation charging Glover with possession of an open container of alcohol, according to court documents. The citation listed a court date: Aug. 21, 2023, at the Eastside District Court.

On Monday, Glover rode the bus to court, took a seat in the courtroom and approached the table where lawyers sit when the prosecutor called his name. Assistant State’s Attorney Patricia Deros explained that his charge, a violation of the Baltimore City Code, carries a maximum penalty of 30 days in jail or a fine up to $1,000. She offered him a deal: Complete five hours of community service and she’d drop his charge.

Glover accepted, becoming one of only a handful of people whose cases on the August dockets were resolved that way, according to an analysis by The Baltimore Sun. In response to The Sun’s request to the Maryland Judiciary, the District Court in Baltimore provided a copy of each citation assigned to an August docket. Of the approximately 70 citations, nearly half were dismissed. More than a dozen were postponed and 16 — nearly 25% — resulted in arrest warrants being issued because people didn’t show up for court.

When Bates started the “Citation Docket,” he touted it as distinguishing him from his predecessor, Marilyn Mosby, also a Democrat, who discontinued the prosecution of low-level offenses. Bates said the goal was to avoid arrests and prosecutions, instead diverting defendants to community service and wraparound help.

“Our goal is not to prosecute,” Bates said at the time, asking for patience as he rolled out the program and dealt with any initial hiccups. “Our goal is to hold people accountable for these quality-of-life crimes.”

Bates declined an interview about the citation docket, which held its first round of court dates in July, saying he would talk about how it’s going Wednesday at a hearing of the City Council’s Public Safety and Government Operations Committee. His office declined to provide data in advance of the hearing. Spokespersons did, however, provide answers to some of The Sun’s questions.

Critics remain concerned Bates’ policy will lead to unnecessary arrests and prosecutions that won’t make Baltimore, which has averaged more than 300 homicides a year for the last eight years, safer. They predict long-term trends will show enforcement disproportionately targeting marginalized communities, and describe a host of consequences from summoning someone to court for loitering, trespassing and open containers.

“Bringing police back into the business of policing low-level offenses means, by definition, bringing them back into address poverty, mental health struggles, addiction, when we know that criminal justice intervention is not the most effective response to those challenges,” said Heather Warnken, director of the University of Baltimore School of Law’s Center for Criminal Justice Reform. “We are creating unnecessary interactions and ongoing inequities.”

The District Courts in East, South and West Baltimore each host a citation docket once a month. In August, each of the dockets concluded within an hour, with the one in West Baltimore ending in about 15 minutes.

“The volume of cases for the first two citation dockets was less than anticipated,” said Terri Charles, spokeswoman for the Maryland Judiciary, in an email. “The District Court will continue to fairly, effectively, and efficiently adjudicate cases should the volume increase.”

Many of the cases dismissed this month were people cited for conducting business without a license. If a defendant got a license before the court date, prosecutors moved to drop the charges. In other cases, officers mistakenly issued a citation for a more serious charge. Some whose charges got dismissed were people whose cases were held over from July to give them an opportunity to complete community service.

The courts’ community service program sends representatives to citation dockets to arrange opportunities for people to complete their hours. Bates’ office also is partnering with the nonprofit Helping Other People through Empowerment Inc. Known as HOPE, it provides employment, mental health and drug treatment resources.

That organization sends staffers to citation dockets, but it’s unclear how many people it’s helped. HOPE’s leaders did not respond to multiple requests for an interview, and Bates’ office declined to provide the number of people who received wraparound services over the first two months of citation dockets.

A range of law enforcement agencies issued the citations that populated the dockets, including Amtrak Police; the Comptroller of Maryland’s Field Enforcement Bureau; the Alcohol, Tobacco, and Cannabis Commission of Maryland, and the Maryland Transportation Authority Police.

Maryland Transit Administration Police issued citations to the most defendants whose cases were on the August dockets, with 23, The Sun’s analysis found. Spokespeople for that agency did not respond to requests for comment.

The Sun’s analysis showed Baltimore Police issued citations to five defendants on the August dockets.

The department’s consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice lays out guidelines for how officers address “quality-of-life crimes.” It says the “least intrusive” enforcement is the most appropriate option, with warnings and counseling preferable to citations, and citations preferable to arrests.

At the department’s quarterly hearing Thursday on the consent decree in federal court, Acting Police Commissioner Richard Worley said he was OK with officers writing few citations, saying the threat of them has helped reduce unwanted behaviors.

“What’s happening is usually when our officers show up, either their mere presence or them saying, ‘Hey, you can’t do that,’ usually abates the behavior,” Worley said.

The citation docket process begins with an officer issuing a citation, which is supposed to list a specific courthouse, date and time to appear, according to Bates’ office.

That person shows up to court and, if they are eligible, a prosecutor will offer community service in exchange for dropping the charges if they complete the service hours. Prosecutors also are supposed to offer wraparound services, like drug or mental health treatment. (Bates’ office doesn’t offer community service to people who have pending charges or are on probation for crimes of violence or those involving handguns.)

If a person doesn’t show up for their day in court, the judge typically reschedules their appearance for the next month’s docket and mails a summons to the person’s last known address. For those who haven’t appeared for the second date, judges have been granting prosecutors’ requests for arrest warrants.

The Sun’s analysis found problems with the citations that could explain why many defendants didn’t show up for court: More than half of citations didn’t list a court date, while others directed defendants to the wrong courthouse. About 40% of the citations heard on the August dockets were issued before June 1, when Bates announced the new policy and publicized specific citation docket dates.

“A work in progress,” Deros, the prosecutor, told District Judge Diana S. Smith, who presided Wednesday over the citation docket in West Baltimore.

Only one of 16 people who had cases scheduled on Smith’s docket showed up to court that day. Over the three days of citation dockets in the week of Aug. 21, Smith and her colleagues issued arrest warrants for offenses such as open containers, drug possession, theft and disorderly conduct.

“If people are experiencing unstable housing, the address they may give in good faith to the police officer may no longer be the address they’re living at the when that summons is mailed,” said Alycia Capozello, deputy district public defender for Baltimore. “It calls into question whether citizens received adequate notice prior to a warrant being issued for them, a warrant that will result in them being incarcerated.”

That’s not to mention the potential challenges with, and consequences of, someone showing up to court, Warnken said.

“When you are talking about people who disproportionately are struggling financially, and maybe trying to survive, the amount of effort and resources it takes to show up for a court date cannot be overstated ... practical, tangible needs, like being able to miss work, like being able to get the child care you need, like paying for and navigating the public transportation system in this city,” Warnken said.

To get to District Court in Brooklyn on Tuesday, Kimani Roberts, a 20-year-old from West Baltimore, missed work and relied on a former teacher to drive him to South Baltimore.

Roberts’ citations had listed the wrong courthouse: East Baltimore. He said he went there for his July court date. He never heard his name called, then found out where he had to go in August.

“I would’ve had a warrant out for my arrest,” said Roberts, if he had missed the second court date. “The communication needs to be better.”

Warnken added there’s an “emotional cost” of going to court for people who are vulnerable or marginalized.

After paying the fare to ride the bus to court, Glover recalled telling his sister and daughter where he was. He said they were concerned, but he had waited to tell them “because it’s a shame.” He hadn’t wanted his daughter to worry. He didn’t want his sister “to feel like her brother is not trying to do the right thing.”

The citation docket felt like a positive experience to Glover at first. He’s OK with doing community service and agreed to work with HOPE, expressing optimism that his experience cleaning and maintaining floors will make it easy for the organization to help him find a job.

But his family’s concern weighed on him. Upon reflection, he said, he wished the officer had just given him a warning, told him about the policy change and left it at that.

“A citation is a citation,” Glover said. “Stealing bubble gum is stealing bubble gum. I’m not trying to get away from that. But can’t you all find something else to do?”

Baltimore Sun reporter Lee O. Sanderlin contributed to this article.

©2023 The Baltimore Sun. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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