Amid a bipartisan chorus urging prison reform and an end to mass incarceration, Democratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley’s words are ringing awfully flat. Like many others, O’Malley urges an end to mass incarceration and more police restraint. His record as mayor of Baltimore and governor of Maryland, however, sings a different tune.
During O’Malley’s two terms as mayor of Baltimore, between 1999 and 2007, he instituted a “zero-tolerance” policing policy. The police arrested hundreds of people a day for infractions as minor as loitering or littering. Many of these arrests happened en masse, where the police at times would round up more than a hundred people and frisk all of them without probable cause.
A typical example includes the arrest of a 19-year-old man who committed the crime of throwing a candy wrapper on the street while sitting on the steps of his aunt’s house. He spent hours in jail before being released. This arrest was one of more than 100,000 in Baltimore in 2005, the peak year of arrests under O’Malley’s leadership. In a city of 640,000 people, that’s almost 1 in 6 people publicly humiliated and degraded in a year, most for committing the “crime” of being black.
The NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union asked O’Malley to stop the baseless arrests. When he refused, they filed a lawsuit against the city of Baltimore based on the arrest of the 19-year-old man and 13 others who were arrested without probable cause of committing any crime. Instead of admitting wrongdoing, O’Malley fought the lawsuit in court for four years. The city lost and was forced to pay nearly $900,000 in damages to the plaintiffs for its illegal and unconstitutional practices. It was also forced to publicly reject zero-tolerance policing.
To this day, O’Malley remains unapologetic about his policing practices and instead touts his record on crime as one of the cornerstones of his accomplishments as mayor. O’Malley frequently repeats the claim that his mass incarceration policing policies led to a sharp reduction in crime rates in Baltimore. What he fails to mention is that crime rates fell across the country during the same time period, regardless of whether states expanded their prison populations. A recent study by the Brennan Center further discredits his claim, noting that “since 2000, the effect of increasing incarceration on the crime rate has been effectively zero.”
O’Malley continued his harsh policies as governor of Maryland. He vetoed mild criminal justice reforms that would have opened up the possibility of parole to repeat drug dealer offenders, while supporting spending $100 million on a juvenile detention facility in Baltimore. He also rejected 75 of 78 parole board recommendations for Maryland inmates, single-handedly carrying out a crusade against those who had already served decades in prison.
This past April, O’Malley penned a column for The Huffington Post about police brutality and mass incarceration. He seemed to finally understand the Black Lives Matter movement, writing of the Baltimore riots that “many of us, for the first time, felt a sense of vulnerability that so many of our black neighbors must feel every day…Make no mistake about it, the anger that we have seen in Ferguson, in Cleveland, in Staten Island, in North Charleston, and in the flames of Baltimore is not just about policing. It is about a legacy of race that would have us devalue black lives.”
O’Malley has correctly identified the effects of systemic economic inequality and brutal policing policies. But he fails to own up to his own role in creating the pernicious vulnerabilities currently felt in the black community of Baltimore. A system that arrests a young black man for sitting outside his aunt’s house is one that is devaluing black lives, and it happened on O’Malley’s watch. And those hundreds of thousands of people arrested in Baltimore are still struggling to find jobs because of their baseless criminal records. As Baltimore-based Reverend Dr. Jamal Harrison Bryant put it, “Martin O’Malley is the father of mass incarceration in the state of Maryland.”
As a presidential candidate, O’Malley must confront his past directly and honestly. His current reformist spirit is encouraging, but O’Malley must also repudiate his tough-on-crime record instead of celebrating it. Our 2.2 million-person incarceration crisis cannot afford anything less.