Prosecutors across the country have begun declining low-level cases in an effort to reduce racial inequity and to slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, reports The Appeal. A year ago, in Baltimore, State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby stopped prosecuting several low-level offenses—minor drug possession, prostitution and minor traffic offenses—to reduce the flow of people in and out of local jails and slow the spread of COVID-19. Though her office dismissed more than 1,400 cases and 1,400 warrants for low-level offenses in the last year, less than one-half of one percent of people who had a case dismissed or warrant thrown out were rearrested for another crime. Overall, the number of people in the city’s jail fell by roughly 18 percent, and nearly 40 percent fewer people entered the criminal justice system. In March, Mosby announced she was making the changes permanent and, while she was the first to do so, district and state attorneys in places like Brooklyn, Washington state, and Illinois have all followed her example. Mosby said that part of the reason she is making the policies permanent is to limit the interactions with communities of color and police.
Researchers and advocates have argued for years that more attention needs to be paid to the misdemeanor system, which ensnares millions of people each year but generally gets less public attention than the felony system. Roughly 80 percent of all criminal cases—more than 13 million annually—are misdemeanors. In a study commissioned by Suffolk County DA Rachael Rollins, researchers from Rutgers University, Texas A&M University, and New York University reviewed more than 67,000 misdemeanor cases filed in the county between 2004 and 2018 and found that having a case dismissed decreased the likelihood that someone would be charged with another crime within two years. Mosby says simply dropping the cases is not enough. There need to be support systems in place to address the underlying causes of substance use and homelessness, for example, she said. Her office is working with multiple mental health agencies and groups that support sex workers to identify people who’ve entered the criminal legal system and connect them with services like a mobile crisis response team, mental health support, and access to medical services like medical detox and HIV and sexually transmitted disease testing.