When he took the oath of office as the 26th Baltimore state’s attorney, Ivan Bates wasted little time in making good on one of his signature campaign promises: resuming the prosecution of nonviolent, low-level offenses including trespassing, loitering and disorderly conduct.
His predecessor, Marilyn Mosby, initially stopped the practice during her second term as the city’s top prosecutor in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. She later made the policy permanent, citing data that showed that the number of arrests and people incarcerated went down without negatively affecting public safety.
“Effective right now, this moment and second, I recall that policy,” Bates said to applause at the Baltimore War Memorial.
A big part of his plan was creating what’s known as the citation docket, which he launched in July in partnership with the Maryland Judiciary. While Bates promised to hold people accountable for their actions, he also pledged to offer them social services to improve their lives.
It’s a policy that has broad support and helped lift him to the highest approval rating of any citywide leader in a survey from the Goucher College Poll in partnership with The Baltimore Banner. Fifty-eight percent of respondents in the poll, which was conducted from Sept. 19 to Sept. 23, supported increasing the rate of prosecution for quality-of-life crimes.
But a Banner data analysis has found that, through the first six months of the initiative, law enforcement has written few citations — and an even smaller number have made it onto the docket. In fact, almost 30% of the cases so far have involved alleged business license violations. And though Bates has repeatedly stated that people who are cited will be offered social services, there’s little evidence that’s happening in any meaningful way.
Bates said he spoke with thousands of people during the campaign who expressed frustration at the decision not to prosecute these crimes. He has emphasized that success will not look like a docket containing hundreds of cases and stated that the process can’t be rushed.
“It’s like the developer that builds a mall and right now just has a couple tenants. The vision has many more tenants,” Bates, a Democrat, said in a recent interview. “It just takes a little while for us to go ahead and complete the vision.”
Supporters of the policy, including Baltimore City Councilman Mark Conway, a Democrat who’s chair of the Public Safety and Government Operations Committee, remain hopeful. But he said he’s unsure why the vision hasn’t been fully implemented.
”I think this is at least a sound solution, but for some reason, we can’t execute it,” Conway said. ”It’s not working right now, because we’re not really doing it.”
What is the citation docket, and how does it work?
Police can cite people for any of two dozen offenses including drug possession, drinking in public places and aggressive panhandling.
People who receive them are supposed to appear at the citation docket, which is held on the third week of the month. It takes place on Monday at Eastside District Court on East North Avenue; Tuesday at the John R. Hargrove Sr. District Court Building on East Patapsco Avenue; and Wednesday at the Edward F. Borgerding Court Building on Wabash Avenue.
The citations can carry potential fines and jail time. They’re supposed to a include a court date and location on them, but that doesn’t always happen.
Assistant State’s Attorney Patricia Deros explains to those who qualify that the state will dismiss their case if they complete community service by a certain date.
But there are several exclusions. People currently facing charges that are crimes of violence or handgun offenses, for instance, aren’t eligible for diversion for these nonviolent, low-level offenses.
Bryan Peters was one of two people who showed up at a recent session of the citation docket at Eastside District Court. CSX Police cited him on July 14 with trespassing on the railroad tracks near Interstate 95 not far from Carroll Park Golf Course.
Peters said he had loaned his 2001 Toyota Solara SLE to a friend of a friend he only knew as “Ace,” who called him less than 20 minutes later and reported that he wrecked the car. The vehicle was stuck on the tracks.
“I don’t want to deal with all of this, obviously,” said Peters, 18, a cellphone salesperson from Dundalk who had been staying with friends, in an interview. “I was just trying to get my car and fix it.”
Though Peters initially planned to go to trial, he agreed to complete five hours of community service in exchange for the dismissal of his case.
District Judge David B. Aldouby wrapped up the citation docket that morning in just 30 minutes.
Here’s what the data analysis reveals about the citation docket
The Banner analyzed 227 cases that appeared on the citation docket from July through December.
The District Court of Maryland and the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office provided copies of the citations.
The data is not complete, though, because several cases have been expunged and there were a handful of citations that court clerks could not find. Because officers write citations by hand, some of the information was not legible.
The Comptroller of Maryland’s Field Enforcement Bureau, which is made up of 10 agents focused on motor fuels, business licenses and sales and use tax for people and businesses in the state, wrote the most citations with 66, which accounted for about 29% of the total.
Agent Joseph Poremski — he’s the only one assigned to Baltimore — alone issued 59 citations. People often received at least two citations: one for not having a business license, and another for failing to display it.
Maryland Transit Administration Police wrote the second highest number of citations with 58 for violations such as open container, drug possession and disorderly conduct.
The Baltimore Police Department wrote 28 citations that appeared on the docket for the six-month period. But there were 149 citations that never made it to court because the agency rejected them as legally insufficient.
The department contends that 67 citations proceeded to court, but the reason for the discrepancy is unclear.
Georgianna Tolliver, 60, an assistant manager at a grocery store who lives in West Baltimore, was cited on March 14 with three business license-related offenses.
At the time, Tolliver said, she worked as an assistant manager at a High’s gas station and convenience store on Erdman Avenue in Northeast Baltimore.
“I couldn’t understand why I was getting the citation when my name is not on the building,” Tolliver said. “I didn’t own High’s. Why would they give me the citation?”
“I couldn’t sleep,” she added. “I was stressed out.”
When Tolliver went to court, she said, the citations were dismissed.
In a statement, Robyne McCullough, a spokesperson for the Maryland Office of the Comptroller, said agents conduct routine inspections and follow up with those who might be delinquent on their obligations.
High’s could not be reached for comment.
Prosecutors have said businesses not being licensed is a quality-of-life issue in the community.
Abram Turpin Jr. said he was holding a 16-ounce can of Steel Reserve High Gravity for someone else on Aug. 15 when MTA Police cited him for possession of an open container of alcohol.
Though Turpin initially found the citation docket to be a waste of time and was upset that the officer who cited him did not have to show up, he said his perception changed after court. He agreed to complete five hours of community service in exchange for a dismissal.
“You know what, I’m not petty. I’ve got other stuff to do,” said Turpin, 47, of Pigtown, who stated that he works for temp agencies and was in the process of moving. He said he sometimes stays with friends or in shelters. “It is what it is.”
Paul Shepard, public information officer for the MTA, said in an email that its officers use citations as one strategy to ensure the safety of riders and employees.
MTA Police issued 103 citations in 2021 in Baltimore, he said, and 97 citations in 2022.
Baltimore Police Commissioner Richard Worley said he thinks that his officers are addressing quality-of-life issues before they have to issue a citation.
In the past, Worley said, there was “no bite” behind warnings. Now, he said, “everyone knows we can write a citation.”
The Central District, which now includes Fells Point, has reported since July that officers have given 757 warnings.
Some officers, he said, have never written citations. And the department has shifted away in recent years from handwriting documents, Worley said.
Worley said he does not focus on the number of citations being issued. Instead, he said, he looks at whether quality-of-life issues are persisting. That’s along with how many complaints police are receiving about these problems.
“I think overall it is actually working well. Obviously, I want it to be better,” said Worley, who added that he’d like to see fewer citations being internally rejected as legally insufficient. “But I think it’s had a really good effect on those quality-of-life issues.”
’This is new work’
Though Bates has repeatedly discussed how people will be offered social services at the citation docket, it does not appear that much is happening with that part of the initiative.
The Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office has an FAQ on its website that lists various groups providing “wrap around services” at the citation docket: The Baltimore City Department of Social Services, Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement, Baltimore Community Mediation Center and B-360. But most of them reported receiving few, if any, referrals.
In an email, Brian Schleter, a spokesperson for the Baltimore City Department of Social Services, said it has not received any referrals to date.
A spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement, Jack French, said it is in the process of developing a memorandum of understanding and did not have a firm timeline.
“This is new work,” French said. “And we want to be intentional on how we facilitate that service delivery.”
Erricka Bridgeford, executive director of the Baltimore Community Mediation Center, which provides free mediation services and teaches conflict resolution skills, said it is on a list of resources available to participants in the citation docket.
Meanwhile, Rashad Staton, executive director of Community Law In Action, which is an advocacy partner with B-360, a nonprofit organization that uses dirt bike culture to end the cycle of poverty, disrupt the prison pipeline and connect communities, said the latter group has received three referrals.
HOPE, which stands for Helping Other People through Empowerment Inc., a wellness and recovery resource center in Baltimore, sends representatives to the citation docket but does not have a formal agreement with the courts or state’s attorney’s office.
The Maryland Office of the Public Defender is not participating in the citation docket in an advisory capacity but will represent people if they go to a district court commissioner and are qualified to receive legal services.
Through her experience with a previous docket called early resolution court, Marguerite Lanaux, district public defender for Baltimore, said she saw how her office’s involvement was ineffective.
Assistant public defenders, she said, were present only in an advisory capacity at early resolution court. They did not represent individual clients and could only explain plea agreements that the state extended in their cases.
Lanaux said that reinforced negative stereotypes of assistant public defenders that they’re only there to force people to plead guilty to crimes. She also said the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old Black man who died from injuries he sustained in police custody in 2015, has changed the tenor of the city in many ways.
“We came to the table. We listened. We provided some data. We provided other examples from models of what we thought may be something that could be productive for the city,” she said. “And it landed where it landed.”
Lanaux dismissed criticism from Bates — that the public defender’s office is engaging in a social justice boycott and refusing to do its job — as inaccurate.
‘People have issues now’
Bates said he feels that the citation docket is going in the right direction, but stressed that it’s going to take time to build up the initiative. He said the process cannot be rushed.
“I’ve kind of looked at this whole year as sort of preseason, like you’d look at football,” Bates said. “You’re going to do some new things. Some things aren’t going to work. Some things you have to go back to the drawing board.”
Because of the citation docket, Bates noted, people have performed more than 100 hours of community service. No one, he said, has reoffended.
If the initiative helps one person, he said, that’s more than was happening before it began. Bates said he tried to put together something to offer to the community.
“One of my problems with government: Government waits on everybody,” Bates said. “People have issues now.”
Baltimore Sheriff Sam Cogen said he views citations as a helpful option.
Cogen described them as one tool in the toolbelt that allows law enforcement to gain compliance without having to take people to jail. He said he could see sheriff’s deputies issuing citations for public drunkenness at events or emotional outbursts in court.
“Who does it really benefit to run them through the arrest process? This is a great middle ground,” Cogen said. “We can address these quality-of-life issues but not have the collateral consequences that are associated with them.”
But people who are involved in the criminal justice system are often experiencing poverty, substance use disorder and behavioral health issues, said Heather Warnken, executive director of the Center for Criminal Justice Reform at the University of Baltimore School of Law.
Even under the best of circumstances, Warnken questioned whether dragging individuals into court is the most effective way to provide them with help. She noted that creates financial and logistical burdens for people and affects their dignity.
A lot of the discussion about the citation docket, she said, has been “anecdote and narrative.”
Though Warnken said she will give the state’s attorney’s office the benefit of the doubt that it intends to connect people with social services, she wondered why that component is essentially nonexistent several months into the initiative.
“What is the benefit,” Warnken asked, “both to public safety and the community writ large?”