The coronavirus is not just a public health crisis. It has created an economic crisis that illuminated the pre-existing and inherent disparities of a criminal justice system that functions off the backs of poor people.
In response to COVID-19, hundreds of U.S. jurisdictions enacted emergency measures to not only de-populate jails and prisons, but to limit harmful fines and fee practices.
Since March 2020, the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office stopped prosecuting certain low-level offenses, dismissed over 1,400 cases, eliminated approximately 1,000 open warrants, supported the early release of more than 400 people, and expanded our bail policies to ensure that we are confining only those that pose a public safety threat.
Following this lead, the Baltimore police department stopped arresting people for low-level offenses and consequently drug misdemeanor arrests are down 75 percent. The overall jail population is down 45 percent, compared to this time last year and, as noted by the Baltimore Sun, there has been no negative impact on public safety.
Baltimore City has taken significant steps to de-populate the jails and prisons. But in a city where 28 percent of the residents live in poverty, the real question is whether we’ve done enough.
Have we also ensured that we’re not further criminalizing those that are impoverished and imposing fines and fees on those least able to afford them?
Last month, Baltimore County announced that it would stop charging individuals the home detention fees associated with being monitored while awaiting trial, joining 15 other Maryland Counties that do not charge these fees.
Home detention is a “pre-trial” detention option considered at a bail hearing while someone awaits trial. Prosecutors make a recommendation to the judge as to whether a person poses a flight risk or may be a public safety threat and whether they should be confined pending their trial.
Weighing several factors, if the court does not feel comfortable releasing a person pending trial, the court may opt for home detention instead of holding the person in jail without bail. Under home detention the individual must stay in their home and is typically monitored with an ankle bracelet.
A hearing on the bill is scheduled Wednesday.
In the meantime, Baltimore City should also stop charging people for home detention, following the direction of Baltimore County and other Maryland Counties, the State of California, and Ramsey County, Minnesota, which have ended electronic monitoring fees altogether.
In Baltimore County, home detention services are fully managed by the city. In Baltimore City, the majority of home detention services are provided by for-profit private companies, who charge individuals anywhere from $11 to $17 a day to be electronically monitored.
Administering electronic monitoring this way means people with money remain free, while those who cannot afford the costs go to jail. Right now in the city of Baltimore, there are well over 600 people currently on home detention. That means the private companies that run the city’s electronic monitoring program are making between $2 million and $4 million a year in fees for Baltimore City alone.
Even worse: unlike the bail system, defendants whose cases are dropped or found not guilty don’t get their money back, leaving many indebted to private companies.
This line of business, often referred to as “community corrections,” is one of the fastest growing revenue sectors in the private prison system. Clearly, this business model attaches someone’s freedom to their financial status and lines the pockets of private companies at the expense of impoverished families.
So at a time of growing unemployment and economic uncertainty due to a global pandemic, municipalities must do more to disrupt a business model that is profiting off the backs of the poor, who are being driven into further debt while being forced to choose between their freedom and their rent.
Legislation has been introduced for the past two years that would obviate the need to pay these exorbitant fees but with the courts still closed, and no end in sight to this pandemic, city and state officials need to step in and immediately alleviate the costs of home detention for those already struggling to afford their basic needs.
In order to balance public health and public safety, we must end the criminalization of poverty, during this pandemic and beyond.
Marilyn Mosby is the State’s Attorney for Baltimore City. Priya Sarathy Jones is the National Policy and Campaigns Director at the Fines and Fees Justice Center.