Marilyn Mosby – State's Attorney for Baltimore, and the youngest chief prosecutor of any major city in the US
When did you decide to become a lawyer? Why?
At the tender age of 14 years old, my 17-year-old cousin, who grew up with me like a brother, was murdered right outside of our home in broad daylight when he was mistaken as a neighborhood drug dealer – an image that is branded into my mind to this very day.
This was a defining moment for me. I was faced with the fact that my cousin, who was actually an honors student with aspirations of becoming an architect and wanted to go onto Morehouse College, was now going to a grave. However, what was even more perplexing to me was the fact that the individual responsible for his death was also 17 years old, yet other than my family’s grief, there was no sense of outrage.
I couldn’t comprehend why this sort of violence was so common among communities of color, and why we collectively, as a community, had become so numb to hearing about yet another young black boy murdered at the hands of yet another young black boy.
If it weren't for the testimony of a neighbor who showed courage, cooperated with police, and testified in court, my family wouldn't have received any sort of justice. That was my introduction to the criminal justice system – dealing with the prosecutors and the court system.
This traumatic and painful event defined my purpose for me. For the first time I was intrigued as to how many African-American young men were affected and impacted by the criminal justice system. At 14 years old, I wanted to know how we could have gotten to that young man before he elected to take my cousin’s life. Suffice it to say, I turned my pain into my passion to reform the criminal justice system.
As the youngest chief prosecutor of any major US city, what do you consider to have been your big break?
I consider being elected by the citizens of Baltimore City to be my big break. When I decided to run for Baltimore City State’s Attorney, I embarked on a journey that was not easily rooted in an abundance of external support. I sat down with any and every politician, business owner, community and clergy leader to ask for their guidance and support in my endeavor. To my dismay, an overwhelming majority of those discussions ended with optimism for my vision, but skepticism in my ability to carry out my vision. Most of these skeptics went as far as to even discourage me from running for this position at all.
Believing in myself and having the unwavering support of my family, I realized that I had to channel my confidence, deflect the negativity, and ultimately decide that as a wife and a mother raising two little girls in the heart of West Baltimore, a woman of faith and a former prosecutor with six years of prosecutorial experience and overall 80% conviction rate, I not only possessed the vision but the passion and foresight to reform the criminal justice system. In June of 2014, I won the Democratic nomination for Baltimore City State’s Attorney in a surprising upset, where I beat an incumbent who outraised me 4-to-1, by double-digit percentage points.
Much of your attention has been focused on the inequities in a criminal justice system that disproportionately affects ethnically diverse people. What do you believe to be the root of this problem, and what are the best ways to tackle it?
We have decades-old failed policies for which we are currently seeing the results. The systemic issues that plague many urban cities, such as Baltimore City, are a result of the lack of access to quality education, jobs and opportunities. For this reason, when I took office, I understood that it was not only about being tough on crime, but being smart on crime. I promised to build a future for Baltimore City where community confidence in the criminal justice system is restored, violent repeat offenders are held accountable, and communities feel safe. In order to reach these goals, my administration is taking a holistic approach to fighting crime.
"When I took office, I understood that it was not only about being tough on crime, but being smart on crime."
Within my first year in office, we made a number of changes to break down the barriers between our Office and the community through the implementation of several programs geared toward addressing these systemic issues. Our Aim to B’More program, modeled after California Attorney General Kamala Harris’s Back On Track program that she launched while District Attorney of San Francisco, is tackling the issue of recidivism. The program is a pilot program that is available to first-time, nonviolent felony drug offenders, who will have their record expunged after successful completion of the program. Aim to B’More is changing lives.
Additionally, we are getting to young people before they get to the criminal justice system. Therefore, my administration has implemented two programs – the Junior State’s Attorney Program and Great Expectations – which focus on introducing youth to the criminal justice profession.
What do you think law firms should be doing to better promote diversity?
At this critical point in our nation’s history, it is imperative that law firms be committed to diversity and inclusion. While we can continue to talk about the disproportionate impact that the criminal justice system has on communities of color, it is incumbent on the legal community to not only talk, but to empower, collaborate, strategize, and make sure those we have around the table represent the community we serve. Then, and only then, will we ever break the systemic and structural barriers to racial and socioeconomic progress.
The Freddie Gray case has been big in the news recently. What would you say to those who think you're overreaching by taking steps to hold police officers criminally accountable?
A gag order has been issued in all matters relating to Freddie Gray. I will respect the Judge’s orders.
What achievement are you most proud of?
I am most proud to be the mother of two beautiful, smart and confident little girls, and the wife of a man who is just as passionate about public service as I am, who encourages me daily, and pushes me beyond my own self-expectations.
What do you consider your greatest failure or regret?
There is no such thing as failure, only delayed triumph. I learned very early on that perceived failure is not fatal. I live by the philosophy that every setback, every roadblock, every loss is just another incredible chapter of my life’s redemption story. Therefore, I have used each trial and tribulation in my life to find my passion and pursue my God-given purpose.
"There is no such thing as failure, only delayed triumph."
What have you enjoyed most during your career in the legal profession?
I have enjoyed the opportunity to pursue justice on behalf of victims and witnesses of crime. However, it is the work we are doing outside of the courtroom to address crime holistically that I have enjoyed the most. My office has several programs aimed at reaching young people in the classroom before they reach our courtrooms. The Junior State’s Attorney Program and Great Expectations work to introduce young people to the criminal justice profession as opposed to the system. Last summer, one of our Junior State’s Attorneys said he had lost hope of being a judge, but after participating in our program he said he would pursue his dream again.
And enjoyed least?
People always ask me if my job is hard, and I say the hardest part of my job is coming home to my babies tapping their wrists, asking “Where have you been?” As a mother it is difficult being away from my girls at times, but I have to remember that my passion to reform the criminal justice system is because of them and their future. It didn't really hit me until I was doing homework with my then-3-year-old during the campaign, and she looks up at me and she says, "Mommy, when I grow up, I want to be a state's attorney." It’s moments like those that make the separation more bearable. Despite our busy schedules, my husband and I are a team, and make sure that we are there to support our daughters.
What law would you change, abolish or create?
I am currently pushing for a bill that would allow the evidence of previous sexual assault allegations to be brought in to criminal trials. One in five Maryland women will experience rape in their lifetime. However, in Maryland, the defense is legally entitled to introduce evidence regarding a victim's past sexual conduct to support their case if ulterior motives are suspected. To the contrary, the prosecution is not afforded the same right. As a result, serial sex offenders continue to win over Maryland juries, securing their freedom while endangering our public safety. We need to bring Maryland closer to compliance with the Federal Rules of Evidence, enacting laws that will allow prosecutors to introduce evidence of a defendant's relevant prior sex acts or abuse of a minor.
Who is your legal hero?
Oh wow! There are so many! I guess if I would have to pick one it would be Senatorial candidate and former Attorney General Kamala Harris.
What career would you have in your second life?
I am a public servant at heart, and my passion has always been to reform the criminal justice system. So, I don’t think I would have it any other way. I am definitely living my dream.
What slogan would you like to be remembered by?
Harriet Tubman once said, “Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.” It is something I say to myself daily as a reminder that there is nothing I cannot do. As long as I have the strength, the patience, and the passion to pursue my dreams, I know I will attain them.
Do you ever get compared to Rhonda Perlman from The Wire? Do you take it as a compliment?
I have never heard that comparison before. As a Baltimore City resident who is committed to moving this city forward, this city is so much more than what is depicted in The Wire. So, while I’m sure the fictional character of Rhonda Perlman is zealous in her pursuit of justice, I am committed to addressing the real, crippling, decades-old systemic and structural issues that have plagued the City of Baltimore for far too long.
"I am committed to the addressing the real, crippling, decades-old systemic and structural issues that have plagued the City of Baltimore for far too long."
You've set up several initiatives, including 'Aim to B’More,' which provides an alternative to incarceration for nonviolent drug offenders. Why do you think it's better to take a more holistic approach to improving the criminal justice system?
We know what happens when these individuals get these felony convictions – they can no longer apply for jobs, they can no longer apply for housing, and they can't really get any sort of financial aid to further their education, so what other alternative do they have than to go back out on the street doing what they were doing before? Through this program, the participants go through a probationary period where they learn life skills, they learn job-training skills, they do community service, and at the end of their probationary period they're given a job. And it's not just something like a fast-food restaurant, five-dollar-an-hour job, but a job with benefits that allows them to provide for their families. At the completion of the probationary period, their felony record is wiped clean. It is only through programs such as this that we will really address the societal ills of poverty and crime.
What advice would you give to students trying to enter the legal profession today?
Throughout history, every great movement toward progress began with young people unafraid to challenge the status quo in the pursuit of justice by acting in that exact moment, and never letting any time, situation or circumstance define their destiny. Therefore, I encourage students to identify their passions and be resolute in their efforts to pursue them.