For some time now we have covered the disappointing and dangerous trends in the courts of Baltimore, Maryland that make it harder to convict criminals of anything. This has resulted in the same “revolving doors” in the jails and courthouses that we see today in so many large cities. But in Charm City, they’ve taken this trend another large step further. In addition to making it harder to lock anyone up, for the smaller number of people who do manage to be apprehended and prosecuted, they’ve been erasing the criminal records of many of them. This makes it impossible for the public to research potential problems and removes information that prosecutors may need when the individual is arrested again and they have to determine the charges to be filed. In an editorial at the Baltimore Sun this week, former Deputy State’s Prosecutor Page Croyder describes the damage that these changes have wreaked on the legal system and the impacts they have had on the citizens.
First, the legislature expanded the law on expungement to, beginning Oct. 1, 2021, automatically expunge any case that prosecutors drop or that results in acquittal after three years or sooner if the defendant files a waiver agreeing not to hold anyone liable for the charges against him or her. That means no member of the public can access the record. (Expungement does not apply if a defendant is convicted on any one count of a charging document.)
Case Search, the Maryland judiciary’s online archive of court cases and “the primary way that the public may search for records of court cases,” according to its website, goes even further to block information from the public. As of January 2021, criminal and traffic cases that prosecutors abandon or dismiss, or the defendant is acquitted or found not guilty, are suppressed from view in the archive, leaving no public record of the arrest.
This goes beyond automatic expungement in that (1) a dismissed case instantly disappears and (2) any count not resulting in conviction also disappears. Not only can’t the public see when prosecutors completely drop a case, we can’t determine what counts were dismissed in a plea bargain.
It’s worth pointing out that the author isn’t just a former prosecutor herself. Croyder is a Democrat who previously ran for a seat as a judge in the 8th Judicial Circuit Court. She comes from the pool of Maryland Democrats and has worked from the inside of this broken system. If she’s complaining about this, something is definitely amiss.
Croyder offers one example involving a woman who was a convicted felon and who fired a gun at her domestic partner. She had previously assaulted the same partner and had violated both probation and home detention. But when she showed up in court, prosecutors had arranged a plea deal to only charge her with misdemeanor assault and reckless endangerment, receiving only probation for her latest crime. The judge rejected the plea deal as being far too lenient. The prosecutors responded by dropping all of the charges and allowing the woman to walk.
The author points out that when she went back to retrieve the case file for this incident, it was already gone. The woman’s record had been expunged. Other records have disappeared from the rolls in alarming numbers. Armed robbery charges have been pleaded down to misdemeanor assault and theft, with those records vanishing soon after. Another prosecutor had a demonstrated history of downgrading serious domestic violence charges and allowing the suspects to take lenient plea deals, including a man with multiple convictions who set fire to his girlfriend’s house.
If you think this sounds inconsequential compared to the ongoing crime wave that’s been plaguing Baltimore for years now, think again. It’s simply another facet of a much larger and more deeply entrenched problem. It’s easy enough to blame all of the bad things that are happening on the gangs, and that’s a fair point. In the end, the responsibility for any crime lies with the criminal. But gang activity can be suppressed to some degree when the gangs know that the long arm of the law is shadowing them and convictions can send young men away until they are old men. Conversely, when the criminal justice system is perceived as being weak and punishment for crimes is light – if there is any punishment at all – it’s a signal to the gangs that the candy store is open and it’s time to do business. A policy of erasing the criminal records of so many people only makes it even harder to build a case against the bad guys in the event that you can find someone willing to prosecute them.