Major police departments are arresting fewer people for minor crimes, reports the Wall Street Journal. Statistical studies show a deep, years-long decline in misdemeanor cases across New York and California and in cities throughout other regions, with arrests of young black men falling dramatically.
New York City’s misdemeanor arrest totals have fallen by half since peaking in 2010, with rates of black arrests sinking to their lowest point since 1990. The arrest rate for black men in St. Louis dropped 80 percent from 2005 to 2017, including steep declines in simple assault and drug-related offenses. In Durham, N.C., arrest rates for blacks fell by nearly 50 percent between 2006 and 2016.
Researchers are surprised by the downward misdemeanor trend, which pushes against assumptions about over-policing in urban areas. Some say the falling arrest rates signal a fundamental shift in crime prevention.
The shrinking misdemeanor totals may be evidence that police are pulling back on sweeping quality-of-life enforcement and focusing instead on “hot spots,” neighborhood strips and streets with clusters of gun violence and gang activity. The decline could be driven by technologies like the internet and mobile phones that help to keep social interaction off the streets.
The growing decriminalization and legalization of marijuana has contributed.
“The enforcement powers of the police are being used far less often,” said Jeremy Travis, former president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Scholars led by John Jay collected data from several cities and released reports over the past year. A report by the Public Policy Institute of California found that misdemeanor rates in California declined by about 60 percent between 1989 and 2016. A forthcoming paper by law professors at George Mason University and the University of Georgia found sizable arrest declines in rural Virginia, San Antonio and other places.
Scholars have long argued that the consequences of misdemeanor disproportionately affect the poor and individuals of color. Writing in The Crime Report earlier this year, Greg Berman of the Center for Court Innovation, said the “outcomes in misdemeanor cases are often profoundly unjust when considering the minor nature of the misbehavior involved.”
“Many misdemeanants are detained while awaiting the final disposition of their cases,” he wrote. “Many are fined and must pay court fees that represent a difficult financial burden. And many leave court with criminal records that can limit their access to education, housing and employment.”
Additional reading: “The High Cost of Justice in America’s Misdemeanorland,” Q&A with Issa Kohler-Hausmann, an Associate Professor of Law at Yale Law School and an Associate Professor of Sociology at Yale, in The Crime Report, Aug 1, 2018.