Because the harsh economic and social conditions in many parts of Maryland bring desperate people to seek shelter, employment and sustenance in ways the law calls criminal, police are charged with enforcing those laws. Homelessness, sex work, recreational drug use and typical adolescent behaviors are all unrelated to actual public safety but currently criminalized, increasing police encounters with the public and inevitably going tragically wrong in all too many cases. The remedy starts with decriminalization, write two with deep experience in this high-risk area.
/By GABRIELA SEVILLA and CHRISTOPHER DEWS<>Maryland Matters/ Maryland’s legislature will convene again in January; though it’s anything but a typical year, bills will be introduced to reform the criminal justice system.
Many bills, as currently drafted, focus on the important issue of police reform – which has received much deserved attention in recent months. But a critical issue of police reform is rarely addressed – reducing the number police encounters with the public in the first place.
Every year, millions of taxpayer dollars are wasted on enforcing laws that do not improve public safety. It’s time we expand the concept and scope of police reform -- if no initial contact is made, there can be no abuse.
The People’s Commission to Decriminalize Maryland is a new coalition whose goal is to reduce the disparate impact of the justice system on people who have been historically targeted and marginalized by laws based on their race, gender, disability or socio-economic status. We’re examining Maryland’s laws to understand the ways they reinforce structural racism and inequality. We have just presented our initial findings in testimony before a legislative task force.
The commission has worked to envision ways laws can be changed, rewritten or eliminated altogether to reduce disparate impact, reduce the prison industrial complex, and improve public health, community accountability and overall well-being. In this upcoming session, legislators must focus on key issues the commission is highlighting including poverty, homelessness, youth, sex work and drug policy.
But what does that mean?
Decriminalizing poverty means changing and eliminating the laws that reinforce cycles of poverty by inflicting criminal-legal sanctions (incarceration, loss of license, excessive fees) on individuals because of their inability to pay or economic status.
For example, people experiencing homelessness will take what shelter they can find when there are no better options available as an act of survival. Laws give police the opportunity to harass and arrest people when there is no public safety justification. Vast amounts of state and city resources are wasted on arrests, detention and prosecution of these charges. As a result, jails have become our largest shelter providers because of the criminalization of homelessness.
Maryland’s code contains many laws that bring young people, and disproportionately youth of color, to the attention of the justice system. Most often, this is for typically adolescent behaviors, reflecting how we have marginalized large segments of Maryland’s youth.
The vast majority of young people’s contact with the system results from laws that make normal teenage behavior – or behavior stemming from trauma, abuse, neglect or poverty – “criminal” conduct, as opposed to seeing that behavior as an indicator of a need for support to help that young person thrive.
Rather than protect, Maryland’s codes collectively serve to harm people, and increase the dangers faced by those engaged in sex work – by choice or circumstance – while doing nothing to improve public safety. Removing laws that criminalize sex workers will allow law enforcement and prosecutors to focus their energies on identifying and prosecuting the sex traffickers who actually pose a genuine threat to public safety, while also increasing the health and safety of those engaged in consensual sex work.
And police often cite suspicion of drug paraphernalia possession as probable cause for stopping and searching people.
An investigative report released by the U.S. Department of Justice revealed that in Baltimore City, unconstitutional stops, searches and arrests disproportionately targeted African-American neighborhoods. The report found that African-Americans were more likely than whites to be searched, despite discovering contraband during pedestrian stops among whites at a 50% greater frequency.
While we spend millions to enforce these laws, subjective criminalization of people based on their status, rather than on danger to public safety, can create additional barriers to stable housing or employment – goals which would, in fact, contribute significantly to public safety.
People across the country are in the middle of an important conversation about police reform. A critical point we must address if we are to make substantial change in the disparate impact on vulnerable populations is whether or not there is initial police contact.
In some neighborhoods, things happen daily that bring people into contact with police when they don’t need to be to serve public safety goals, and we know this doesn’t happen everywhere.
As Maryland grapples with calls to divest from law enforcement, it is crucial that we also examine the criminal laws police are tasked with enforcing, and consider how we can create more effective ways to ensure accountability and equity, and ultimately create safer communities for everyone.
Sevilla, a lawyer, is an Equal Justice Works Fellow at the Homeless Persons Representation Project where she leads the DREAM – Disability Representation Education Advocacy Medical-Legal – Partnership. Dews is a policy advocate for the Job Opportunities Task Force working on expanding paid sick and safe leave laws, decriminalizing poverty and race, and expanding criminal record expungement access for lower-income workers in Maryland.