Looking out at the rows of youths clad in blue blazers waiting to be “sworn in” to her Junior State’s Attorney program, Marilyn Mosby thought back to her own childhood.
As a young woman of color interested in the criminal justice system, she wondered why so many people brought in and out of courthouses in chains looked like her, and how she could break into a profession in which she resembled so few.
Less than a year from the next Democratic primary election, Mosby — now Baltimore’s top prosecutor— continues to invest much of her time promoting youth and community engagement.
She says she wants her office’s programs to break down distrust of law enforcement and help keep young people on the right track in a city plagued by violence.
Kicking off her Junior State’s Attorney Program at the War Memorial last month, she quoted Frederick Douglass: “We know it’s easier to build strong children than it is to repair broken men.”
Mosby campaigned on promises to reduce violence in the city; since her election in 2014, homicides have reached historic highs. Her most prominent action as Baltimore state’s attorney — the prosecution of six police officers in the arrest and death of Freddie Gray — yielded no convictions. Her relationship with police is strained.
Her staff says they remain focused on prosecuting violent offenders, but are also taking a holistic approach to fighting crime.
Mosby’s office has used grant money to hire a full-time youth coordinator, and has been organizing Friday night pop-up events for children, including roller skating and pool parties that officials say have attracted hundreds. The office is amassing attendees’ information into a database, which officials plan to use to help connect them with future opportunities.
“We can’t just prosecute our way out of these issues,” said Melba Saunders, a spokeswoman for the State’s Attorney’s Office. “Part of this is getting to our youth before they get to us.”
Those who attended a recent event at The Dome, a basketball center in East Baltimore, applauded the job Mosby is doing.
“For the most part I think she’s good for Baltimore, and I think she does a tremendous job,” said Michael Wise Sr., 65. By being present in the community, he said, “people understand she’s more than just a figurehead.”
After a deejay began playing music, a man was shot a few blocks away. A woman hustled a group of children by the crime scene; they were on their way to the pop-up event.
David LaBahn, president of the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, a national group, said Mosby’s approach in the community is unusual — but worthwhile.
“It sends a stronger signal when it is the State’s Attorney’s Office sponsoring it, rather than another rec program,” LaBahn said. “It’s a public acknowledgment by the chief prosecutor that there’s tremendous value in these prevention programs.”
Mosby’s critics say the events are little more than photo ops, and that she has failed deliver on promises of broader criminal justice reform. Then there is the continuing increase in crime: homicides and shootings in the first half of 2017 were up 94 percent from the same period in 2014, when candidate Mosby said crime was high in part because then-State’s Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein had failed to win the trust of the community.
Attorney Chad Curlett, a Democrat who has said he will challenge Mosby next year for state’s attorney, said the events for children and teens appeared to be “wonderful opportunities for the city’s youth that get to take advantage of them.
“Whether they are helpful or effective in reducing crime is an open question.
“The state’s attorney’s ability to promote these events and her office is not in doubt,” Curlett said. “What is in doubt is her ability to meet the core responsibilities of her office and effectively prosecute crime.”
Some say Mosby’s outreach has helped repair a reputation that was damaged after she failed to secure convictions for any of the six officers she charged in Gray’s death.
Farajii Muhammad, a radio host on Morgan State University’s WEAA, said Mosby’s image took a hit in that case. But he said many city residents believe she is operating within a system that is difficult to change.
Her work in the community is “not necessarily in the job description of the State’s Attorney’s Office,” he said, but “only helps her in the sense of trying to build relationships.”
“If she or any city official is not in the streets, they really won’t be able to do their jobs effectively,” Muhammad said.
City Council President Bernard “Jack” Young, who donated blazers for the junior state’s attorneys to wear, said the city’s challenges require a proactive approach from all agencies. “I am happy to see a state’s attorney that’s out and about in the community,” Young said.
Loastine Baylor, a nurse who lives in East Baltimore, said she is thankful that her 14-year-old son was accepted into the Junior State’s Attorney program.
It runs for six weeks and takes participants on tours of various aspects of the criminal justice system. They are encouraged to ask tough questions in meetings with the mayor and judges. The program culminates with a law school-style mock trial competition at the University of Baltimore.
In its third year, the program has expanded from 30 to 45 participants, who for the first time are being paid through the city’s YouthWorks program.
Baylor said she does not have to worry about her son this summer while she is at work.
“It’s a life-saver,” she said.
Mosby’s office also runs the Great Expectations program, which introduces fourth-graders to the criminal justice system, and Aim to B’More, which connects first-time offenders with job opportunities.
Each year the programs have collectively reached about 90 people. The criminal justice system is swamped with thousands of cases.
As the youths filed into the opening ceremony for the Junior State’s Attorneys program, proud parents filled rows of seats and held up cell phones to take pictures.
Mosby placed a pin on the jacket of each participant, and posed for more photos.
“As junior state’s attorneys, I as state’s attorney have high expectations of each and every one of you,” Mosby told them. “In order to stop the violence we must invest in our young people. You are the city’s future.”
Brian Gray, a 14-year-old who said he lives in Parkville and attends Archbishop Curley High School, said he wants to learn about the law.
“In law you get to talk a lot, and show you have a voice to protect people who can’t do it themselves,” he said. “You have to make other people believe you, even if the situation isn’t always believable. I really enjoy that challenge.”
He said summer diversions are important for kids his age, to keep them out of trouble and away from bad influences.
Jamal Karim, 14, who lives in the city’s Lakeland neighborhood, said he was referred to the program by a mentor. He said he wants to learn more about the law because he expects to be pulled over by the police and wants to know his rights.
“Growing up here is not easy,” he said. “You’re surrounded by so much wrongdoing. It’s so easy to pick up a drug or pick up a gun and go shoot somebody. It’s hard to pull yourself away from that.
“You keep yourself positive, your whole community will turn.”