ANNAPOLIS – Sparked by charges that the police in Baltimore are arresting too many people for little or no reason, legislators and city prosecutors are supporting legislation that would automatically clear arrest records of people who have been arrested but released without being charged.
“It’s about justice,” Delegate Keith Haynes, D-Baltimore, told a press conference Wednesday before the legislation got a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee. “The numbers are staggering where there are individuals who end up with arrest records but no charges have been filed.”
Though the legislation would apply statewide, supporters of the bill focused almost entirely on Baltimore, where about 2,000 people a month were arrested and released without being charged in 2005, according to Patricia C. Jessamy, the Baltimore City State’s Attorney.
Jessamy attended both the press conference and the hearing to support the legislation.
Under current state law a person who has been arrested but never charged with a crime has to file a request with the state to have the arrest removed from their record. As part of the request, they waive their rights to file a lawsuit against the government regarding the arrest. Critics say this unfairly puts an undue burden on people who are often already struggling to find jobs and housing.
“When people are arrested and not charged, the expungement should be automatic,” said David Rocah, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union, told the committee. “The burden should not be on them to know they are entitled to an expungement and to navigate the system.”
Not far beneath the surface at Wednesday’s hearing was criticism of Mayor Martin O’Malley, who is often blamed for establishing the policy of aggressive policing which has led to the arrests.
No one from City Hall appeared at the hearing. The only opposition to the bill came from the Maryland Fraternal Order of Police, and the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, which objected to the bill’s cost.
The proposed law would require state authorities to clear an arrest record if the police do not bring a charge, and would do away with the requirement that they sign away their right to sue.
Jessamy said people are often released when they are arrested for minor crimes, such as loitering, disorderly conduct or drinking illegally in public, or when there is not enough evidence to charge them.
“We don’t want to impede these people from getting jobs, loans and housing,” said Jessamy, who has in the past been at odds with O’Malley. “We really want to focus our effort on violent offenders.”
But even among supporters of the bill there was disagreement over the reason that so many people are being arrested and not charged. Several lawmakers and organizations have said the bill is necessary because Baltimore police are using overly aggressive tactics and arresting people unnecessarily.
Delegate Jill P. Carter, D-Baltimore, told lawmakers that though she supports the bill, clearing people’s arrest records only addresses the symptoms of a much larger problem. She said the large number of people arrested by Baltimore police is the result of a policy ordered by City Hall.
“The mayor of Baltimore needs to issue an executive order to fix the problem,” she said.
But according to Yolanda G. Winkler-Dyson, the Deputy Director of Intergovernmental Relations for O’Malley’s Office, arresting people for minor crimes is often warranted and can prevent more severe crimes. She said minor crimes can detract from the quality of life in a neighborhood because often the same people commit more serious offenses.
“We agree that there are concerns as to some of these arrests,” she said in an interview after the hearing. “But many community members would rejoice that at least something is being done.” Losing the information included in the arrest records was also a concern for O’Brian Atkinson, an Anne Arundel County police officer who testified on behalf of the Maryland Fraternal Order of Police. He said the evidence in arrest records often leads police to clues that later on help solve more serious crimes such as robbery, rape and murder.