Op-Alt: The money spent to arrest and prosecute Freddie Gray for nonviolent crimes could have sent him to college

City Paper

In the much-anticipated May 1 press conference Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby said that Freddie Gray’s arrest was illegal. Freddie Gray should have never been in that van. And the failed policies that have brought Freddie Gray and thousands like him into police vans across this country should have been a part of every media story about Baltimore last week.

Maryland Judiciary Case Search indicates that since 2007 Gray has had at least 18 cases brought against him. All but three were drug related and seven were for possession of a controlled substance, without the intent to sell. There are two cases in Gray’s record that indicate second-degree assault, which in Maryland law means that he either intended to frighten someone, made an attempt, or actually battered someone. There are few details on the most recent case, because it was closed due to Gray’s death. Many of the other charges against Gray were dropped; cases were closed due to lack of evidence. Gray pleaded guilty on a few cases of possession, which resulted in his release on parole. In his seven-year history of misdemeanors and felonies, in his seven years of riding in police cars and vans, Gray committed at least 16 nonviolent offenses.

Let’s leave aside the argument about whether or not there was a probable cause to arrest Gray on all of those 16 occasions. Unless, of course, we want to discuss how this extensive arrest record at 25 left Gray virtually unemployable. But for now, let’s assume that Gray justifiably attracted police attention, and was apprehended and processed.

In 2011, processing an individual through the Baltimore Central Booking and Baltimore Detention center for one day cost the city an estimated $260. At a minimum, with his 18 arrests, Gray cost the system roughly $4,700 (assuming he was released the same day and not including public defender costs, court fees, police time for arrest and processing, and parole-officer time over seven years). To many, $4,700 might seem like a small amount, easily justified by the workings of the criminal-justice system. But this amount could have almost paid for Gray to go to Baltimore City Community College for two years; could have paid for him to go through drug rehabilitation program if he was developing a drug problem; could have paid for an entire vocational training for him to learn a trade.

This amount also constitutes one-fifth of the yearly income of the majority of people who reside in Gray’s neighborhood. Even at this very minimum, $4,700 is a frivolous amount of money for a resource-deprived city like Baltimore to spend on a nonviolent offender, especially considering that hundreds of such offenders are processed through the system daily.

Between 2006 and 2013 Baltimore’s violent crime rate dropped 20 percent. Arguably, if there are less-violent criminals, there should be less incarceration. This logic is not reflected in Baltimore’s incarceration statistics. While the U.S. incarcerates adults at a rate of 455 inmates per 100,000, Baltimore’s rate is increasing, now at 1,255 per 100,000 with about one in 100 Baltimore adults currently serving a prison sentence. Further, there are 25 communities in Baltimore City responsible for three-quarters of these sentences, and among these, five that account for 25 percent. Sandtown-Winchester, where Gray came from, is at the top of the list. With 52 percent unemployment, 33 percent of houses abandoned, and the highest rate of elevated blood-lead levels among children in Baltimore City, the neighborhood “contributes” the highest number of inmates to the Maryland correction systems. This “contribution” from Sandtown-Winchester alone costs Maryland taxpayers $17 million annually.

The majority of those currently serving sentences are nonviolent offenders like Gray. The money that is spent to hunt them down, process them through the system multiple times until the charge actually “sticks,” and then to keep them in prison for years away from families, education, jobs, and any hope of a life that is normal adds up to enormous, immeasurable sums. In addition to the money, there is also tremendous social impact. What if for a second we could imagine that this money is instead invested into education, community building, job creation, into fixing abandoned houses, into scraping lead-based paint off the walls? Would Sandtown-Winchester be the same?

What happened to Freddie Gray was an atrocity, but what happened to him didn’t start with that van. What happened to Gray started with half a century of drug policies that incentivize police to target nonviolent drug offenders. These policies lead to excessive incarceration of black males, who reside in impoverished urban neighborhoods where, due to lack of employment, education, and other opportunities, the drug trade is a key occupation. These policies and the cycle of incarceration they created have contributed to this widening opportunity gap that is fueling the drug trade and in turn leaving generations fatherless, homeless, and lacking any sort of social support. Until these unfair and incredibly costly policies are reformed or abolished, there will be no justice for Freddie Gray.

Baltimore needs drastic and immediate changes that will elevate its communities, put a stop to brutal policing, and turn around the city’s abysmal public health and social-welfare indicators. Baltimore’s rates of HIV infection, teenage pregnancy, infant mortality, and chronic disease reflect that of a developing country. Evidence suggests that drug decriminalization decreases HIV prevalence, violent crime, and levels of drug use in the population and that putting public health and education in focus contributes to poverty alleviation. Learning from these and other progressive policies and reversing the tragic impacts of police militarization and excessive incarceration will take time and gargantuan effort. But it is a task that Baltimore has to take on starting immediately. Until then, helicopters will buzz overhead, sirens will howl, and too many in the city will remain angry at unjustified crimes. 

Marina Smelyanskaya is a co-founder of The Focus Group, a consulting group that seeks to find simple and effective solutions to public health and policy issues.

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