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Profile: Thiru Vignarajah for Baltimore City State's Attorney

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Posted at 2:18 PM, Jun 21, 2018
and last updated 2018-06-21 14:19:49-04

His Plan if he was State's Attorney:

  • Reducing Violent Crime
    • Lead proactive, RICO-style prosecutions in troubled neighborhoods

    • Reestablish a community prosecution model by assigning prosecutors to each of nine police districts in order to strengthen real-time communication and long-term relationships among police, prosecutors, and the community.

    • Concentrate on critical cases from burglaries to firearms violations

    • Prosecutors will help identify returning citizens at greatest risk of being killed or killing someone else. Develop a comprehensive reentry plan for a productive return to the community.

    • Address Baltimore’s drug epidemic through public health strategies, providing victims of addiction with the help they need and ending prosecutions for petty offenses.

  • Restoring Faith in Police

    • Fully account for the impact of the Gun Trace Task Force, review potentially-tainted cases, and prior convictions according to a set of clear and publicly available guidelines.

    • Establish an early warning system to engage in pattern recognition with respect to overtime abuse and detect possible signs of misconduct.

    • reate a Civil Rights Division, charged with protecting the rights of residents

    • Take steps to open the process to public view, from initiation to final disposition.
  • Reforming Juvenile Justice
    • Prosecutors will be assigned to each of the city’s 40 recreational centers so that prosecutors and youth can build relationships outside the courtroom.

    • Juvenile justice must be a vocation, not a rotation, with prosecutors who are dedicated to closing the revolving door.

    • Prosecutors will use laws that provide stiffer penalties for those who exploit juveniles to do their bidding.

    • Prosecutors must distinguish between youth offenders who will benefit from a second chance and repeat violent offenders who need to learn there are consequences for their crimes.

    • For every high school in Baltimore, we will designate a juvenile justice prosecutor who will serve as a community resource and whose prior approval will be solicited for charging in-school conduct.

Thiru Vignarajah Questionnaire:

 

BACKGROUND:

A native of Baltimore, Thiru is the son of Baltimore City public school teachers and a product of public schools himself. His mother started teaching at Poly and finished at Morgan State; his father taught at Edmondson and Western, Digital Harbor and Douglass. Thiru attended Edmondson Heights, Woodlawn High, Yale University, and Harvard Law School, where he was elected President of the Harvard Law Review.  He then clerked for Justice Stephen Breyer on the United States Supreme Court. 

Following his clerkships, Thiru committed himself to service in Baltimore, first as a federal prosecutor and then as Chief of Major Investigations in the State’s Attorney’s Office for Baltimore City, before being named Deputy Attorney General for Maryland. 

A seasoned trial attorney, Thiru has prosecuted complex criminal cases in both state and federal courts in Baltimore, bringing to justice, for example, an arsonist who set a row house on fire with his girlfriend and her five-year-old son sleeping inside, two gang members who killed a 12-year-old boy and shot three other teenagers, and the mastermind of a series of armed robberies that led to the death of a local businessman.

As Deputy Attorney General for Maryland, Thiru was the lead author of statewide guidelines to end discriminatory profiling by police, making Maryland the first state in the country to issue such guidance.  In addition, he led the drafting of a report by the Maryland Attorney General, “The State of Marriage Equality in America,” which was cited by the Supreme Court in its landmark decision, Obergefell v. Hodges.

Thiru has been praised for his commitment to public service by judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and commentators alike.  When Thiru was named Deputy Attorney General for Maryland, the former police commissioner of Baltimore City called Thiru a “once-in-a-generation lawyer and leader” and credited his unit with tackling “the hardest cases against the city’s worst criminals.”  He was named by Center Maryland as Lawyer of the Year in 2014, and was honored in 2015 by the U.S. Attorney for Maryland for his prosecution of the Black Guerilla Family, Baltimore City’s most notorious and violent gang.

EDUCATION:

  • Edmondson Heights Elementary School 
  • Johnnycake Middle School 
  • Woodlawn High School 
  • Yale University 
  • Harvard Law School 

The importance of education is something that has been instilled in Thiru from a young age. Both of his parents are retired Baltimore City public school teachers. When Thiru’s father retired last year after nearly 40 years as a teacher in Maryland, he was the oldest teacher in Maryland, at the age of 80. Thiru has paid tribute to his parents, teaching crime policy and constitutional law at Johns Hopkins University, the University of Baltimore School of Law, and Maryland Law School, where he has received the award for outstanding professor of the year many times. Thiru also coaches debate at Frederick Douglass High School, where his father taught years ago. 

RESIDENCY:

Federal Hill, Baltimore 

1 - What are your biggest priorities for the State’s Attorney’s Office and how will you go about achieving them? Why are you the best candidate for this office? 

My pledge is to cut murders in half in three years; launch complex, high-impact prosecutions to drastically reduce violent crime; end failed policies of mass incarceration, like mandatory minimums, cash bail, and the school-to-prison pipeline; reform the juvenile justice system; and forge the most innovative, transparent, progressive prosecutor’s office in the nation.

Now more than ever, we need experience and a proven prosecutor at the helm of the State’s Attorney Office—not a politician, not a defense attorney.

This is the most important Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s race in a generation. We are a city in crisis faced with a critical decision for our next State’s Attorney. What we do over the next four years will define the progress and future of the city. Please take time to review my detailed plans on my website, thiruforbaltimore.com. 

2 - Baltimore’s violent crime rate has spiked in the years since Freddie Gray’s death and the subsequent Baltimore Uprising. Though statistics have been trending down somewhat this year, what role does the State’s Attorney’s Office play in curbing such violence, and what specific plans would you implement to combat the rise in crime? 

The State’s Attorney’s office must lead the charge in addressing the crime surge in Baltimore. My pledge is to cut homicides in half in three years, but not by relying on the same failed zero-tolerance policies that have done little to promote public safety at great cost to our communities. I am committed to using the powers of the Office to address the flaws in the criminal justice system; to disavow the failed mass incarceration and zero-tolerance policies and practices that have preyed on communities of color; and to achieve what for too long has been thought impossible—to at once reduce crime and sharply reduce arrests and prosecutions for petty offenses, including marijuana possession.  

Here’s what I will do differently:

  • Match community policing with community prosecution.
  • Develop proactive gang prosecutions focused on the 11 communities most ravaged by violent crime. Currently, prosecutions in the State’s Attorney’s Office are entirely reactive. It wasn’t always that way.
  • Build stronger cases, with a special focus on high-impact prosecutions like gun crimes, burglaries, and carjackings.
  • Involve prosecutors in developing comprehensive reentry plans for individuals who are at the greatest risk of becoming victims or perpetrators of gun violence. 

3 - There has been much turnover in the State’s Attorney’s office since the last election in 2014. Is this just business as usual, or a concern needing to be addressed? If so, how would you attempt to retain experienced prosecutors, or do you have a different plan to recruit and maintain top talent in the office? 

Since the current State’s Attorney took office, over half of the Office’s prosecutors have resigned—nearly all voluntarily. The exodus of experienced prosecutors is symptomatic of something wrong with the leadership of the Office.

My time as a prosecutor in Baltimore City has been the honor of a lifetime. Baltimore needs a State’s Attorney’s Office full of prosecutors who feel the same way. We should harness our crisis of violent crime to use as a lightning rod to attract the best talent in Baltimore and countrywide. Our pitch should be: come to (or stay in) Baltimore and get more experience faster than in any other legal job while making a real difference.

At the same time, to ensure a strong prosecutor’s office and seasoned public servants, we will seek federal grants to raise salaries and establish world-class training for the prosecutors we have now.

One of my opponents touts that many prosecutors will return if he is elected, and that is why voters should elect him. All of the candidates know prosecutors who are loyal to each alone, but one thing I refuse to do is use that as a reason why you should vote for me. Prosecutors take an oath to the Constitution, not to an individual. The current State’s Attorney hired and fired based on who supported her in the last election, and that’s one of the things that poisoned the water over the last three years and caused prosecutors to leave.

With a change in culture, vision, and resources, the State’s Attorney’s Office can become the premier prosecutor’s office in the country—our present crisis demands it, and the citizens of Baltimore deserve nothing less. 

4 - Baltimore has a long history of strained relationships between community and police, but that has potentially reached new lows with the current consent decree and the fall out over the Gun Trace Task Force prosecutions. 

-How can the State’s Attorney’s Office aid in repairing that relationship?

-How should the State’s Attorney’s Office aid in sussing out potential corruption, holding police accountable and not letting such incidents affect prosecutions? 

With violent crime at an all-time high, communities across Baltimore need a police force they can trust. To restore integrity, we need to rebuild how we hold police accountable because the current system is not working. It is too slow; it is too secretive; and it has sown injustice. Returning to a community prosecution model, which was dismantled by the current State’s Attorney, will help. So will my plan to create a first-ever Civil Rights Division that will root out corruption, curb overtime abuses, ensure community input, and assist with police training.

One mechanism that can aid the State’s Attorney’s Office in detecting corruption is to monitor overtime pay. When you look at the Gun Trace Task Force cases, we see a steep spike in overtime requested at the beginning of the conspiracy. I will set systems in place to track such indicators in order to rebuild trust and transparency between police, prosecutors, and communities.

The relationship between police and prosecutors must be built upon mutual respect and trust. That means police must know that part of a prosecutor’s job is to hold them accountable, whether they are cutting corners or committing crimes. 

5 - How best can the residents of Baltimore evaluate the successes or failures of the State’s Attorney’s Office, and what can the office do to increase accountability and transparency so citizens can understand and effectively judge the work of city prosecutors?  

To make sure the public can hold us accountable, I have pledged to create the most transparent prosecutor’s office in American history.

First, we will release 100-day plans every 100 days. At the end of each 100 days, we will release a report on what we have accomplished and where work remains.

Second, each week, we will make available online a downloadable index of resolved and pending cases so the public can see for itself the status of cases and how cases have been resolved.

Finally, to give the public additional insights about how cases are investigated and prosecuted, for certain cases of public importance (e.g., police-involved fatalities), we will permit, with certain conditions, a member of the media to be embedded in the investigation. 

6 - The recent death of Officer Amy Caprio has brought increased scrutiny on the state’s juvenile justice system. Acknowledging that the care of juvenile suspects is the purview of the Department of Juvenile Services, what responsibility does the State’s Attorney’s Office have in ensuring both a fair judicial process for juvenile suspects and the safety of the community at large? How could this system be improved?

As tragic and alarming as the death of Officer Caprio was, locking up all juveniles accused of crimes is not the answer.

We need a plan that not only closes the school-to-prison pipeline and the revolving door of juvenile justice—which has led to surging crime rates by children—but also accounts for the unique features of youth offenders and restores individualized consideration of juvenile cases.

My approach contains six commitments that no other candidate for State’s Attorney has ever made:

  1. Rebuild the juvenile justice division with permanently assigned dedicated prosecutors.
  2. Focus on gangs and drug crews that use juveniles to commit crimes by charging those organizations with harsher penalties.
  3. Close the school-to-prison pipeline by requiring pre-approval for in-school arrests. Criminal charges should not be the default, but a matter of last resort.
  4. End life without parole sentences for juvenile offenders.
  5. Advocate that Maryland join 29 other states that have abolished mandatory adult charging. Prosecutors must have the discretion to distinguish between youth offenders who will benefit from restorative justice and a second chance, on the one hand, and repeat violent offenders who need to learn there are consequences for their crimes, on the other.
  6. Assign a team of prosecutors to every recreational center, where each prosecutor will work one day a month, strengthening community ties and exposing youth and prosecutors to one another outside the courtroom.