Karsonya Wise Whitehead, the radio show host and academic who presided over Baltimore City State’s Attorney Ivan Bates’ swearing ceremony on January 3, began the proceedings with a reference to “On the Pulse of Morning.” The poem was written and recited by Maya Angelou on the occasion of Bill Clinton’s swearing-in as president of the United States in 1993.
“Here on the pulse of a new day,” Wise Whitehead intoned, her voice echoing off the walls of the Baltimore War Memorial. “You may have the grace to look up and look out/and into your sister’s eyes and into/Your brother’s face, your country/And say simply/very simply/with hope –/good morning.”
“We are excited about what will happen today and what Mr. Bates has planned for Baltimore City,” Wise Whitehead said.
As state’s attorney, Bates is tasked with stopping crime, punishing perpetrators of crime, and maintaining enough goodwill with the public to get re-elected. Bates has addressed this by painting himself as a kind of anti-Marilyn Mosby. Where the former head of the State’s Attorney’s Office made overtures to progressive policy, Bates has instead touted the kind of policies reminiscent of the Clinton-era ’90s.
“For far too long, the State’s Attorney’s Office has tried to be all things to everybody, and, quite frankly, it hasn’t worked,” Bates said during his inaugural address.
Bates has been in office for seven weeks. In that time, he has added staff to the office and dropped charges against Keith Davis Jr., a Baltimore man who, under Mosby, had been tried four times in connection with a 2015 murder. He declined to bring charges against the Baltimore police officer who shot and killed 18-year-old Donnell Rochester in February of 2022 (a Maryland attorney general investigation found that one officer shot Rochester when he no longer posed a threat).
Baltimore has seen some heartbreaking and violent crimes just in the short time that Bates has held office. The year 2022 ended with over 300 homicides. The day after Bates was sworn in, five young people were shot at Edmondson Village Shopping Center. One of the young people, Deanta Dorsey, died. At the end of January, two people were killed — one of them a young mother — when, police say, a group of people opened fire on the 1700 block of Pennsylvania Avenue. Residents want rapid solutions. But is Bates, as many politicians before him, putting weight on quick actions rather than long-term, true success?
In written response to questions from Baltimore Beat, Bates said that he is cognizant of the Baltimore Police Department’s issues with misconduct and takes them seriously. At the same time, his decisions are based on what he thinks the people of Baltimore want. He says that’s what led him to rescind Mosby’s policy of forgoing prosecution of low-level offenses.
“I knocked on over 15,000 doors [out of nearly 600,000 residents] while on the campaign trail. The common thread in those interactions with residents was the idea that they no longer want to turn a blind eye to low-level or quality-of-life offenses,” he said.
By quality-of-life crimes, Bates means things like low-level drug possession, sex work, and trespassing. Progressives have argued that these offenses disproportionately harm the poor and minorities.
A Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health study found that Mosby’s policy helped reduce the number of 911 calls police received and did not cause an increase in rearrests for serious crimes. A study conducted from 2004 to 2018 by the National Bureau of Economic Research, which examined a community in Suffolk County, Massachusetts, found that people who were not prosecuted for low-level offenses did not run into more significant legal problems later.
“Entanglement with the legal system itself seems to be a risk factor for future criminal prosecution,” researchers wrote in an op-ed for The Washington Post.
At the M&T Bank Stadium celebration of Bates’ inauguration, politicians, residents, and campaign donors mingled and danced to a performance by R&B singer Joe. “It’s like an episode of Law and Order in here,” popular DJ Quicksilva joked, noting all the people in the law-enforcing business who were in attendance. “Ivan Bates made a promise,” Quicksilva shouted. “He said, ‘I’m locking ya’ll asses up!’”
Bates is currently lobbying lawmakers in Annapolis hard in favor of stricter penalties for people 21 and older found with a handgun without a permit. Most of Baltimore’s lawmakers have targeted illegal handgun use as a major cause of crime. Just as hard as he’s pushing it, progressives and academics are fighting it, pointing to research for why this won’t work.
“Increasing prison sentences is based on a false premise and is not going to make the public safer. The evidence is simply not there,” said Heather Warnken, executive director of the University of Baltimore School of Law’s Center for Criminal Justice Reform, testifying against HB0481. “While not a ‘mandatory’ sentence, longer sentencing ranges that rely on prosecutorial and judicial discretion to identify who deserves greater punishment have been demonstrated to lead to harsher sentences for Black, Brown and poor defendants than their white and wealthier counterparts.”
“As an attorney, I read and review all types of research about the criminal justice system and public safety overall,” Bates told Baltimore Beat. “Still, my focus is on analysis that looks at Baltimore specifically because we are unique in many respects.”
Bates said he’s open to working with people from all parts of the political spectrum to stop crime in Baltimore.
Ray Kelly, executive director of the Citizens Policing Project, said he has concerns about Bates’ plans for the city, specifically what he calls a “regression” in crime-fighting policy, and has already had the opportunity to sit down with Bates.
“We talked about broken windows and another rebranding, so to speak, of zero tolerance policing,” Kelly said. “He feels like there has to be some semblance of a deterrent, which for many is strict penalties…once again kind of creating a situation that, as we’ve learned through history, led to mass incarceration.”
Kelly said that Bates seemed resolved in his plans. So Kelly said he is throwing his own efforts into other ways to make life better in Baltimore, mentioning the work people in the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement has done on their Group Violence Reduction Strategy program. The program is designed to help stop violence before it starts.
“I’m a firm believer in second chances,” Kelly said. “We can’t invest in penalties if we’re not investing in the solutions to the reasons people choose a life of crime.”