Study Shows No-Prosecution Policies for Misdemeanors Lead to Less Crime

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Liberty County Courthouse, Liberty, Tx. Photo by Patrick Feller via Flickr

An independent research study showing that a decline in prosecutions for misdemeanors and other non-violent offenses does not imperil public safety is adding new impetus to reforms by so-called “progressive” district attorneys in Boston, Chicago and Baltimore.

The study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that reducing prosecutions for some low-level offenses in Massachusetts’ Suffolk County, where Boston is located, can lead to less crime committed in the future while not impacting public safety, reports the Boston Globe.

Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx immediately praised the findings, saying  police should pay attention to the research and search for alternatives to prosecution, the Chicago Sun-Times reports.

On Friday, Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced that she was making an initiative to stop prosecuting drug possession, prostitution, minor traffic violations and other low-level offenses that was begun a year ago to curb COVID-19’s spread in jails and prisons permanent, reports WFLA.com.

In Baltimore, as a result of these changes, jail populations have been reduced and nearly all categories of crime have since declined, essentially confirming the theory that crackdowns on quality-of-life crimes are not necessary for stopping more serious crime.

In the 12 months since Mosby ordered scaled-back enforcement, violent crime is down 20 percent and property crime has declined 36 percent and researchers at Johns Hopkins University found sharp reductions in calls to police complaining about drugs and prostitution.  However, while there has been a small decline in homicides, Baltimore still has one of the highest homicide rates among cities nationwide.

Highlighting the  Suffolk County research conducted by Amanda Agan from Rutgers University, Jennifer L. Doleac from Texas A&M University, and Anna Harvey from New York University, the group analyzed 67,553 misdemeanor cases in Boston, Winthrop, Revere and Chelsea from 2004 to 2018. 

They found that people who were arrested but not prosecuted on low-level, nonviolent misdemeanors — like shoplifting, drug possession, or motor vehicle offenses — were “58 percent less likely to commit another crime in Suffolk County in the following two years,” according to the study.

One of the main reasons for the drop in potential to commit another crime is that the original interaction with the justice system is enough to shake the defendant, and set them on track for the future — only 24 percent of defendants returned to court for another offense within two years, compared with 57 percent of defendants whose charges were fully prosecuted, according to the researchers. 

“Our results imply that a prosecutor’s decision to not charge a defendant with a nonviolent misdemeanor significantly reduces their probability of future criminal legal contact,” Rutgers University professor Amanda Agan, told WBUR. “Or put the other direction: prosecuting these defendants actually decreases public safety.

This new study acts as validation for Suffolk County District Attorney Rachel Rollins. When she took office in 2019, she drew criticism for her stance on having assistant district attorneys declining to prosecute some nonviolent misdemeanor crimes. 

Moreover, the researchers’ review of Boston’s current crime data from January 2017 to February 2020 found “significant reductions” in reports of property damage, theft and fraud after Rollins took office, along with no increase in disorder or drug crime reports.

“We see no evidence that her inauguration and this expansion of presumptive non prosecution decreases public safety,” Agan told WBUR. “If anything, it increases it.”

Meanwhile, the Chicago Sun-Times reports that Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx is heeding the results of the Suffolk County research study, and actively looking for alternatives to prosecuting people for non-violent misdemeanors which typically carry a penalty of up to a year in jail. 

Cook County’s court system handles over 220,000 misdemeanors a year, and unlike Boston where prosecutors decide whether to initiate a misdemeanor prosecution, in Chicago, much of that responsibility falls on the police as they can “unilaterally charge a person with a misdemeanor and prosecutors then must decide whether to move forward with the case or dismiss it,” the Chicago Sun-Times details. 

“So the question is, is it really in the interest of public safety to initiate these cases in the first place?” she said in an interview. “Surely there’s a way that we can dispose of these cases without having to come into the courthouse.”

On that note, Foxx pointed to the Chicago Police Department’s program that diverts people who are caught with small amounts of drugs to a drug treatment program instead of time behind bars. 

Foxx also said that the police should look for ways to divert individuals experiencing homlessness who wind up entangled with the justice system because someone else calls the authorities noting a “nuisance.” 

While Cook County State’s Attorney is beginning to advocate for these changes following the data’s confirmation of retained public safety, Baltimore State Attorney Marilyn Mosby stopped prosecuting drug possession, prostitution, minor traffic violations and other low-level offenses last year as a response to curbing COVID-19’s spread behind bars, WFLA News details.

Following the shift, authorities note that nearly all categories of crime have decreased, confirming to Mosby what she and other experts have argued for years: “Crackdowns on quality-of-life crimes are not necessary for stopping more serious crime,” WFLA News explains. 

On Friday, she announced that she was making this once pandemic experiment permanent, saying in the year that misdemeanor prosecution has been halted, violent crime is down 20 percent and property crime has declined 36 percent.

“Clearly, the data suggest there is no public safety value in prosecuting low-level offenses,” Mosby concluded at a news conference.

The full Suffolk County report Misdemeanor Prosecution can be accessed here.

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