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Defense lawyer and candidate for State’s Attorney Ivan Bates talks about how to reform the criminal justice system, with a nod to Philadelphia’s Larry Krasner

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BAYNARD WOODS: For The Real News, I’m Baynard Woods. And I’m back with Ivan Bates, a defense attorney running for the state’s attorney’s office in Baltimore Maryland. In the first part of our conversation, we talked about the Freddie Gray case and the Gun Trace Task Force corruption trial. Now, we’re going to move on to talk a little bit more about ways to transform and reform the criminal justice system here in Maryland. Welcome back, Ivan.

IVAN BATES: Thank you, Baynard. Glad to be here.

BAYNARD WOODS: So, I mean, the other big crisis that we’re facing in addition to police corruption, is the homicide crisis, 342 murders last year, regularly making over 300 murders in the city for the last several years. And we’re also locking up unprecedented numbers of people, and people still don’t feel safe. So, between the homicides and the mass incarceration, neither of which seem to be working, what can you do as a state’s attorney to make the people of Baltimore actually feel safer?

IVAN BATES: It’s important to understand the criminal justice system in Baltimore City and the state of Maryland, but specifically in Baltimore City, the most important part of the system is the state’s attorney. And why do I say that? The police make arrests, that’s a short term solution. The judge’s sentence, but what has changed in the past three years? One thing, our new state’s attorney are the incumbent. What does that what does that mean? In 2015, the law changed, which said that no longer are judges the sole individuals who decide the sentences. It is now the state’s attorney. So, with the state’s attorney being the individuals that decide the sentences in terms of the sharpe case, now the state’s attorney’s office has all the power.

So, you have to have a strong state’s attorney. If you have experience, you understand the system, and how the system works. Under our current state’s attorney in the past three years, 95 prosecutors have left that office. That means they’re not winning the cases, that means they’re going to have more pleas on cases that should possibly go to trial, or they’ll give pleas to cases that should have been dismissed and never should have been prosecuted. They’ve lost 800 years of experience. When you sit down to look at this figure alone, 175 wins and trials for the Baltimore City state’s attorney’s office, 237 losses for the state’s attorney’s office. That means for what, out of every 10 cases that go to trial, the state’s attorney’s office only wins 4. 6 violent offenders, who are individuals committing murder are sent back on the street to do what? Commit murder. You have to win trials. When you win trials, you have to have experienced prosecutors, the 95 that have left, a number of them want to work with, and only with the meek. They want to come back to finish, to make sure we can keep the citizens safe. So, once you understand that aspect, it’s the experience. I have 23 years of experience as a prosecutor, I did homicides in my last two years. I’ve done hundreds of murder cases, and violent crimes as a defense attorney and as a prosecutor. That experience is the one thing that I have to bring to the system.

But we also can’t just try to lock our, arrest our way out of this. When you sit down and look at some of the the policy changes they’ve made a Philadelphia under the new state’s attorney, Mr. Krasner. One, let’s sit down and look at how we deal with marijuana. Let’s sit down and look at those cases. Why are we even prosecuting those small amounts of marijuana? We have a system here in Maryland that allows individuals to make millions of dollars off marijuana, but yet, we’re going to go after a person who is a user? Why are we spending our resources on that? Let’s spend those resources on making sure we have good support staff to go after violent offenders. Number two…

BAYNARD WOODS: Let me stop you real quick on that because I, Krasner also said that marijuana, just of any amount not to prosecute, he directed his prosecutors, but you mentioned small amounts. Would you go as far as saying not to prosecute any amount?

IVAN BATES: I think in terms of the felony distribution we need to look at the amount. If you have a ton of marijuana, it’s a little different. And you know, it’s the amount that we need to sit down and look at, and even when you sit down, I think and look at his paperwork, his policy interdepartmental policy, they had to sit down and look at the amount, then based on the front office, based on the amount, then they’ll make a decision whether or not to prosecute at that moment in time.

So, I would be open. I’m not going to go so far to say any amount, but we have to sit down and look at the amount. If you have tons of it, you know, a tractor trailer full of marijuana, we have to prosecute you, because then we know it’s for distribution, and for those illegal means. But when you sit down, let’s look at prostitution. Why are we prosecuting prostitutions? Because then, should we not try to hopefully get these young ladies help? Maybe they have drug addiction. Should we not try to get them a lot of time to sit down and see what’s happening in terms of these young ladies being in a system that they don’t want to be involved with? You know, the trafficking, and so, that’s what we need to sit down and look at those types of issues. We also have to sit down, and just to me, look at the way with these individuals, when they come back from being incarcerated. Why can’t we have a state’s attorney that goes down to the General Assembly that says, “Look, nonviolent felonies, we need to make sure we provide a mechanism to expunge these records so that these individuals can have jobs.”

Why can’t we also sit down and say, under probation, why do we call it supervised probation? I want to make the name Supportive Probation. I want to help you get a job, because once you have a job, repaying taxes, once you’re paying taxes, businesses are thriving. And guess what, then we have more people working, we help our system help everyone else. So, the purpose, and to me, the role of the criminal justice system is not to be a punisher, but OK you know what, you’ve paid your debt to society, now we’re here to help you get on your feet, get a job, take care of your family and become a positive member of society. We don’t want to sit down and give you the scarlet letter because you sold drugs at 18, you’re now a 32 year old man who can’t get a construction job because you cannot get the certifications that you need. Why do we have to do that? Let’s expunge that gentleman’s criminal record and let’s allow them to get the certification so they can have the job to take care of her family.

BAYNARD WOODS: It seems that we are in a moment of tough on crime again nationally, and with the US Attorney’s Office, and the president, and the Department of Justice, would you, and there are calls for increased penalties in the legislature here for gun crimes. Do you believe that longer sentences actually help people to feel safer, or to be safer in the city, or does it just keep more people locked up for longer? And to come back to Krasner, one of the things that he asked his prosecutors to say is to look at the cost of it, and the cost of one year of unnecessary incarceration is the cost of one year’s salary for a beginning teacher, police officer, or firefighter, or social worker. And he asked them to disclose that if you’re seeking a sentence of three years, to record that it would cost the taxpayers $126,000. Would you support something like that or do you support these longer sentences that are going through in Annapolis?

IVAN BATES: It depends on the crime. For instance, one of the things you also talked about was Electronic Home Detention. I’m a big proponent of that because I think when they’re at home, when they sit down there around their children but they cannot leave, they may have a job that they can do, and they’re paying for the Electronic Home Detention. So, they also have some “skin in the game.” But I also think in some of the sentences, they need to be, show that they’re going to be punished. When you talk about, and I will be tough on crime. But I’m saying, one, let’s win trials, and let’s go out that are murderers, and let’s go after the rapists, the violent offenders. I have to be tough on them. But I also recognize, do they have the opportunity to be rehabilitated? Yes.

Can we sit down and possibly look at motions to modify after five years to see that you’ve gone and you’ve been incarcerated, and you really want to change your life? Yes, but does that also mean that we bring the victim’s family in to sit down and say, “Hey.” At the end of the day, that’s their loved one who they lost. And if they sit down and feel, you know, 20 years or 30 years is long enough for this person that’s murdered my loved one, then they have an important, and a very very valuable role within that sentence, because at the end of the day I’m just a vehicle. They’re individuals who have been suffered, who’ve suffered the loss of a loved one, but let’s sit down and look at the legislature. My belief is the legislature can pass any any bill that they want to in terms of handguns. But the state’s attorney’s office, currently, they’re not even calling those counts. For instance, if you have a felony and you have a handgun, then you’re riding around in the car with a handgun, you already have prior felony convictions, the state’s attorney’s office, they may charge you with being a felon in possession which is 20 years, the first five without the possibility of parole. But when you get to court, they don’t call that. Why? Because you have a young prosecutor who knows they can’t win, and they want to have stats to say that they’re winning cases. So, what you’re going to have to do, let’s make sure if we’re going to go after you and give these mandatory minimum sentences, that they are only focused on the worst of the worst, those repeat violent offenders. But no, we’re not going to arrest our way out of this, and I’m definitely against mass incarceration.

BAYNARD WOODS: So, let me come back to one more thing about these numbers, about winning cases. So, Mosby cites a 92 percent conviction rate, you are citing numbers that were much different, 100 and something wins versus 200 and something losses. How do these numbers, how do you reconcile these numbers? How did they add up?

IVAN BATES: Well, under Gregg Bernstein and Ms, Jessamy, I think Gregg Bernsen has 78 percent conviction rate, Ms, Jessamy, 72 percent. I asked a citizen, “Do you feel safer now than you did before three years ago?” No. So, basically the numbers that Ms. Mosby counts, she doesn’t count nolle process, she doesn’t count stets, she doesn’t count the cases, the thousands upon thousands [of] cases they’ve dismissed. For me, that “conviction rate,” that’s the preseason, I look at as sports. That’s the preseason. The criminal element doesn’t care about the preseason. They don’t care about guilty pleas. They care about one things: wins and losses in trials. Because we can easily track that, I don’t have to make that a mythical number. I know that you won 175 cases. It’s there in the court system. We can pull the names of the cases, and I know that you lost 237 cases. The only thing the criminal element cares about, are you winning or are you losing? And Baltimore is losing its battle. Crime is winning in Baltimore City, and Baltimore is losing because the state’s attorney cannot win trials. And yes, that is the only thing that I care about in that sense, not your conviction rate. What are we doing when we go to trial?

BAYNARD WOODS: Well, speaking of winning and losing, it’s a good time to transition to the campaign a little bit. Stay tuned for the next part of our interview with Ivan Bates, talking about the state’s attorney campaign. For The Real News. I’m Baynard Woods.

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Baynard Woods is a criminal justice reporter and the Editorial Director of the Baltimore Bureau at the Real News. He creates Democracy in Crisis, a column and podcast syndicated in a number of alternative weekly papers, and is the author of "Coffin Point: The Strange Cases of Ed McTeer, Witchdoctor Sheriff."