How Many of 10.5M U.S. Arrests are Unnecessary?

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Photo by Elvert Barnes via Flickr

Police around the U.S. arrest people 10.5 million times each year, and many of those are unnecessary, contends a new report from the Vera Institute of Justice.

Because most arrests are not for serious crimes but for offenses like drug possession, public drunkenness, and disorderly conduct, many cases could be handled effectively by other means and thus not contribute to the nation’s mass incarceration, Vera suggested.

“To chart a new course in American policing, police should use arrest sparingly,
intentionally, and transparently,” declared the report.

The effect of arrests on incarceration is particularly noticeable in local jails, which held 745,200 inmates as of mid-2017, only a small number lower than the total in 2005.

Citing data from the FBI and the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, Vera said that for every 100 arrests the nation’s 18,000 police departments made in 2016, there were 99 admissions to jail.

This compares with a much lower ratio 25 years ago, when there were 70 jail admissions for every 100 arrests.

Rates of reported crime have dropped sharply during that period, indicating that police these days are more likely to make an arrest in a typical case.

As the report puts it, “Police enforcement has become an expressway to jail.”

The high arrest totals have an especially severe impact on minorities. In
2016, black people were arrested at more than twice the rate of whites, approximately 5,313 and 2,444 per 100,000, respectively.

That disparity has been consistent for 15 years.

Arrest data for 1997 to 2008 shows that one out of three young adults—and nearly half of black men—had an arrest record by age 23

One reason for the persistently high arrest totals amid a declining crime rate, says Vera, is that police departments often measure officers performance by the number of stops and arrests they make and number of summonses and tickets they issue, “all of which are much easier to quantify than enforcement alternatives (especially when an officer decides to do nothing).”

Police also may choose to arrest people to seize their assets under a civil asset forfeiture law, or to generate fines and fees to increase municipal revenue.

Vera says that more police departments are exploring alternatives to arrests, often in partnership with local health departments and behavioral health or human
service providers.

“Such partnerships increase police capacity to respond more constructively to people who regularly come into contact with police, such as those who have mental health or substance abuse issues or who are homeless,” the report says.

For example, a suspect may be referred to 24-hour respite care, crisis beds for short-term stays, detox services, health education, housing aid, and other social services.

One example is Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD), which Vera calls “perhaps the most widely replicated police diversion program.” The goal is to connect people with services that can “help them change their lives for the better,” whether by medical care, safe housing, counseling, or mental and drug treatment.

Some diversions occur instead of arrests, and others after an arrest but before a jail booking.

Using such options more frequently “hold the promise of reducing the volume of unnecessary arrests and jail bookings and, for the people involved, avoid some of the negative consequences that follow arrest, prosecution, and incarceration—including deteriorating mental or physical health, imposition of court fines and fees, and disruption of employment or education,” the report says.

Still, the alternatives to arrest “remain small in scope and reach,” says the report.

Vera has a number of suggestions for improvement, including establishing entities beyond police agencies “as the default responders to noncriminal but critical circumstances,” focusing on categories of offenses that do not require police enforcement, expanding the reach and scope of alternative-to-arrest programs, policies, and reward officers “when they properly use nonpunitive problem-solving tools.”

The report also calls for more research on the impact of reforms to ensure they are achieving their intended outcome. For example, police of “citations” instead of arrests should be studied to see if the approach is a “genuine pathway away from—rather than a back door to—incarceration.”

Vera says such efforts “will likely require systemic shifts in how everyone
from local elected officials to the public to law enforcement agencies view
policing itself.”

Vera’s report is part of a series it is writing that are supported by the Safety and Justice Challenge, an initiative of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s to reduce overincarceration by changing the way the nation uses jails.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report.

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