Rarely does debate between candidates for elected office take place in front of a mountain of beer, nor is there usually an abundance of formalwear in a brewery. But that was the scene Wednesday evening at Peabody Heights Brewery on 30th Street in Baltimore, which played host to a forum for the candidates for Baltimore City state’s attorney.
The forum was lively and sometimes touched on tensions between the candidates, but one important element was missing — the incumbent state’s attorney for Baltimore City, Marilyn J. Mosby (D).
Mosby’s campaign had informed the Downtown Baltimore Family Alliance — one of the event’s co-sponsors, alongside Baltimore Women United — that she had a scheduling conflict. Organizers held out hope that she would arrive, but her seat remained empty for the entirety of the event, while attendees at the forum were treated to a vigorous back-and- forth between the other two Democratic candidates, Ivan Bates and Thiruvendran “Thiru” Vignarajah.
Just a day after the city crested 100 homicides for 2018 and during a week that saw two teenagers murdered, the candidates fielded questions on prosecuting violent offenders, gun violence, and communities’ relationships with the police.
Bates and Vignarajah both advocated for heavier prosecution of violent repeat offenders and criticized Baltimore’s cash bail industry as a tool of mass incarceration and discrimination.
Vignarajah, a former president of the Harvard Law Review and once a deputy attorney general for Maryland, has garnered much attention in recent years for his prosecution of Adnan Syed of “Serial” fame.
Vignarajah’s signature campaign pledge is to cut murders in half over the next three years by targeting neighborhoods with repeat violent offenders.
Bates, a former deputy state’s attorney and attorney of 23 years, focused on the experience he would bring to the table and his preestablished trust and relationships with both the community and law enforcement. He claims to have never had a case overturned as a prosecutor, and to have never lost a murder trial he prosecuted. He referred to prosecuting violent offenders as “a way to give hope” to struggling communities.
The candidates differed on predictive policing, or the use of techniques to determine where and when crimes will occur.
“There are neighborhoods that need police and prosecutors and the community to come together and bring to justice those individuals who are destroying these communities,” Vignarajah said. He did not, however, support police departments attempting to predict whether a person would commit a crime in the future.
Citing his previous experience prosecuting gangs in Baltimore City, Vignarajah argued that residents wanted to stem the influx of drugs and violence into their communities, and that those afflictions were largely responsible for disinvestment in neighborhoods across the city. Vignarajah’s solution: to more aggressively prosecute repeat violent offenders in neighborhoods with high crime rates.
“That is not disempowering to minority communities,” he said.
Bates made it clear that predictive policing would not be part of his strategy for reducing crime in Baltimore.
“As a black man in Baltimore City,” he said, “I can understand the fear of so many of my younger brothers and sisters. I can also understand on the other hand how the police wish or want to do something.”
Bates said he’d rather focus on community policing, painting predictive policing as targeting neighborhoods, not criminals.
Curbing gun violence, Bates argued, requires compassion. People carrying guns, he said, do so because they don’t feel safe. “That’s why they have to have a role model. That’s why they have to have relationships” with law enforcement.
Vignarajah was more skeptical, arguing that gun violence was the result of ineffective prosecution, pointing to the high numbers of dropped cases and acquittals for those charged with felony possession of a firearm.
“The first thing we have to do to end gun violence in this city is to have effective gun prosecutions,” he said. “We need to treat every felony possession case, every carjacking where a gun is used, every murder where there are casings on the crime scene that match a shooting on the other side of town … like they are the most serious cases that Baltimore has to prosecute.”
Both candidates noted that the office was failing to adequately prosecute criminals. Bates’ plan for addressing the office’s failures to prosecute repeat violent offenders was to put more attention on those cases and create a training program for younger attorneys.
“For every 10 violent offenders, six of them are going home,” he said. “We do not have time to continue the policies we know have failed us. After Freddie Gray, as they say, the game has changed.”
Vignarajah suggested the city recruit talent from across the country to prosecute the most serious violent repeat offenders.
“We have a chance to use the lightning rod of crime to attract the greatest generation of trial lawyers to Baltimore,” he said. “It’s not just the turnover, it’s the lack of training, it’s the lack of inspiration, it’s the lack of guidance, it’s the lack of the kinds of things that we had at the U.S. attorney’s office when I was a federal prosecutor.”
The dysfunctional juvenile court system is another challenge facing city prosecutors and law enforcement.
Asked whether there should be a distinction between violent and nonviolent youth offenders tried in adult court, Vignarajah replied, “Closing the revolving door of juvenile justice has got to be one of our top priorities.” Mandatory sentences, he said, were an outdated policy. The core issue, Vignarajah argued, is “distinguishing between the youth offender that deserves a second chance and needs support and services, and the violent repeat offender who needs to be taught there are consequences to their crime.”
“That idea’s not going to work,” Bates shot back. He laid out several proposals that involved working closely with juvenile offenders.
“These programs are already in the community. Having been in the community for 23 years, I know where they are, I know who they are and I’ve been working with them.”
Bates also argued that body camera footage could help prosecute bad acting cops, but also allow communities to see what good and bad policing looks like. Vignarajah argued that the state’s attorney’s office create a civil rights division dedicated to prosecuting the errors of police officers. He also said he would assign a prosecutor to the police department’s training division to ensure that new and experienced officers were up to date on what was legal and what was illegal.
A sizeable crowd attended the event, and questions kept rolling in. Vignarajah had a squad of supporters in tow, all donning campaign shirts with his bright yellow emblem. Only a few in the crowd wore Bates’ more subdued box-logo shirts, but his supporters more than made up for it with loud shouts and cheers after several of his answers.
In her absence, Bates and Vignarajah pulled no punches about Mosby’s term in office, arguing she was responsible for the uptick in Baltimore’s murder rate, which has climbed to record levels since 2015. This was not the first debate Mosby skipped, having declined at least two previous debate appearances. Bates and Vignarajah have both criticized Mosby for her lack of participation.
The Democratic primary on June 26 will decide Baltimore’s next state’s attorney, as no Republicans have filed to run.
While she was not present for Wednesday’s forum, Mosby did commit earlier that day to three debate appearances starting June 7 — just 19 days before the primary.