Dear President Biden,
Remember the other day when I brought up the idea that we need to include “Transformational” in our conceptualization (and execution) of DEI work and shift to “Transformational Inclusivity, Diversity, and Equity” or TIDE? Well, I still believe this. I still believe that we can’t simply include more diverse people in the same old power structures and expect to achieve equity let alone transformation.
And, wow, did I just read an exciting article about Baltimore’s Attorney General, Marilyn Mosby’s stunningly transformational work! You have to check it out. This 41-year-old Black woman recently pulled off an amazing end run around the carceral (in)justice system. Her office stopped prosecuting all “drug possession, prostitution, trespassing and other minor charges” to keep people out of jail during the pandemic. It was a smart, humanitarian move and it offered the chance to carry out an experiment of sorts – what happens when the state stops prosecuting low-level crime?
Mosby brilliantly enlisted the help of Johns Hopkins researchers to answer that question. The JH people looked at all the 911 calls over the 8-month period and compared them with the prior 8-month period. They also looked at recidivism over the time frame to address whether people who were arrested on such charges but not prosecuted would be caught re-offending more often than had the prosecution process proceeded as usual. The city tracked arrest rates and, critically, violent crime rates.
You’ll see if you read the article (and I’m just relating what I read there – there doesn’t seem to be a peer-reviewed paper out on this – yet) that 911 calls about behavior and prostitution went down dramatically, misdemeanor arrests went down, and only 5 of the 1,431 (0.03%) of those arrested and not prosecuted were re-arrested in the following 8 months (they didn’t give the usual figure but this represents a huge drop). You’ll also see that:
“…violent crime in Baltimore dropped 20 percent from last March to this month, property crime decreased 36 percent, and there were 13 fewer homicides compared with the previous year. This happened while 39 percent fewer people entered the city’s criminal justice system in the one-year period, and 20 percent fewer people landed in jail….”
The article reminds us that violent crime in most other major metropolitan areas dramatically increased over the past year so it’s unlikely that the decreases in Baltimore can be written off to the pandemic.
Mosby isn’t gaining any fans in the police union but the chief of police seems to be getting on board. Plus, she’s partnering with organizations that address the needs of sex workers and those with mental health and substance abuse issues and now calls about these issues go to an alternate 911 dispatcher who sends out a social work/nursing team instead of the police. Again, brilliant.
This is exactly what the “defund the police” movement has been advocating that has the “law and order” people foaming at the mouth. I know they won’t be convinced by one (incredible) case study, but Mosby has shown that when you back off and stop prosecuting people for behaviors that should never have been criminalized in the first place and instead work to connect them with services, violent crime decreases. It will be good to figure out the why and how of this over time, but it seems clear that many (many) more cities need to try this experiment and carefully monitor what happens.
It also seems clear that when truly antiracist elected officials take risks and start doing things differently (or stop doing things the same old, same old ways) cool things can happen – transformational things can happen. Yes, there will be some experiments that don’t work out, but when we find things that do work, new ways of doing things that give people grace and that help build community, the growing pains are worth it.
Please take heed. We need you to be looking to the change-makers and we need you to get comfortable with being uncomfortable since the real change-makers aren’t likely to be your best buds.
May we create real safety.
May we be willing to risk backing off.
May we build strength and resilience through grace and appropriate care.
May we accept that the carceral state needs to die.