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Baltimore’s No-Prosecution Policy for Low-Level Drug Possession and Prostitution Finds Almost No Rearrests for Serious Offenses

Six out of 741 whose charges were dropped under policy were rearrested for serious offenses; report also found policy led to fewer new arrests and fewer 911 calls 


A new report from researchers at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Heath found that Baltimore’s no-prosecution policy for minor drug possession and prostitution, enacted at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, led to fewer new low-level drug and prostitution arrests, almost no rearrests for serious crimes for those who had charges dropped, and fewer 911 calls.

The findings suggest the new policies did not result in increased public complaints about drug use or sex work, and that those who had charges dropped did not go on to commit serious crimes.

Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced that Baltimore would stop prosecuting low-level drug and drug paraphernalia possession and prostitution in March 2020, chiefly as an infection-reduction measure at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. A year later she announced that the policy would remain in place—even after the pandemic winds down—as a way of reducing the burdens on city police and on the poorer, predominantly Black city residents who are traditionally arrested for such crimes.

For their analysis, the researchers examined arrest and 911 call data. To understand arrest trends, the researchers looked at two things: 1) the number of new arrests across the city for low-level offenses covered by the policy; 2) among those who had charges dropped under the policy, rearrests for serious crimes including robbery, guns and weapons charges, and assault, among others. The research team also analyzed 911 calls involving low-level drug possession and prostitution covered by the no-prosecution policy.

The report’s key findings, covering the 14 months following the policy change (April 2020 to May 2021), include:

  • An estimated 443 new drug/paraphernalia-possession and prostitution arrests were averted as a result of the new no-prosecution policy, 78 percent of which were averted in the Black community. This analysis was based on Baltimore Police Department arrest data.
  • Of the 741 people whose drug and prostitution charges were dropped, six—less than 1 percent—had new arrests for serious crimes during the study period. This analysis  was based on Maryland Courts Judicial Information System data.
  • Calls to 911 about drug/paraphernalia and prostitution declined significantly in the post-policy change period.

The report, “Evaluation of Prosecutorial Drug Policy Reforms in Baltimore, Maryland,” was produced as part of an ongoing research collaboration between the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health to examine public health-oriented criminal legal reforms amid the escalating overdose crisis. The no-prosecution policies were enacted against the backdrop of a national discussion on drug policy reform that touches on, among other things, the impact of over-policing in communities of color and the need for a public health approach to addressing substance use.

“We found these results very encouraging on the whole because we know that putting people into the criminal legal system is harmful to their mental and physical health, and it seems that Baltimore has been able to reduce that problem without incurring a significant cost in terms of public safety,” says lead author Saba Rouhani, PhD, an assistant scientist in the Bloomberg School’s Department of Health, Behavior and Society.

For their analysis, the researchers compared Baltimore Police Department and Maryland Courts Judicial Information System’s arrest data for the 27-month period January 2018 to March 2020 before the policy went into effect, to the 14-month period April 2020 to May 2021 when the policy was in effect. Given the pandemic kept people indoors more than normal, reducing arrests for many crimes, the researchers’ examined trends for offenses not covered by the no-prosecution policy, including robbery, assaults and weapons charges.

“Many people who were prosecuted for these low-level drug and prostitution offenses have unmet health needs and a long history of trauma, necessitating responses other than arrest and incarceration,” says senior author Susan Sherman, PhD, MPH, Bloomberg Professor of American Health in the Bloomberg School’s Department of Health, Behavior and Society.

Using Baltimore Police Department arrest data, the researchers found that arrests for the new policy’s covered offenses declined significantly after the policy was instituted and estimate that 443 drug/paraphernalia-possession and prostitution arrests were averted as a result. The majority of these averted arrests were estimated to occur in the Black community, though disparities in arrests by race persisted after the policy change.

The researchers found little evidence that those who had charges dropped under the new policy went on to commit more serious offenses. Crimes covered by the analysis included: robbery, murder, manslaughter, guns and weapons charges, assault, sex offense, carjacking, home invasion, kidnapping, arson, and drug distribution. Using the Maryland Courts Judicial Information System arrest data, the research team tracked 741 cases of individuals whose drug and prostitution charges were dropped under the policy. They found that in the ensuing 14 months, six of those individuals (0.8 percent) had arrests resulting in serious crimes.

Calls to 911 for covered offenses also declined, consistent with a reduction in public concerns.

The findings, the researchers say, suggest that many drug- and sex-work-related offenses should be reconsidered as a public health problem requiring public health solutions rather than prosecutable offenses that burden the policing and judicial systems and do not address underlying factors.

“We think that the next step is to start a dialogue about providing public health services to these people that are no longer going to be arrested,” Sherman says. “We should now be asking, is there a sufficient safety net of harm reduction services, treatment, and social services to meet the needs of people who are no longer arrested?”

“Evaluation of Prosecutorial Drug Policy Reforms in Baltimore, Maryland” was written by Saba Rouhani, Catherine Tomko, Noelle Weicker, and Susan Sherman.

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