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Thursday, September 23, 2021

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News + PoliticsCharging people with misdemeanors causes more crime, not less

Charging people with misdemeanors causes more crime, not less

Groundbreaking study shows that dropping the charges in many cases leads to lower crime rates overall.


While the Marina Times (among other critics) continues to attack District Attorney Chesa Boudin for not putting enough people in jail, a new gorundbreaking study suggests that charging people with misdemeanors is likely to cause more crime, not less.

The study, by a political scientist at NYU and economists at Rutgers and Texas A&M, was published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

The authors — NYU’s Anna Harvey, Rutgers University’s Amanda Agan, and Texas A & M’s Jennifer Doleac — looked at arrests and prosecutions in in Boston between 2004 and 2018. They concluded that people arrested for nonviolent misdemeanors who had their charges dropped were far less likely to be charged with another crime.

In fact, according to an NYU summary, the findings:

suggest that aggressively prosecuting low-level crimes could actually lead to more crime.

“Law enforcement has historically pursued punitive policies directed at these ‘quality of life’ offenses in the belief that those policies enhance public safety,” explains New York University Professor Anna Harvey, director of NYU’s Public Safety Lab and a coauthor on the paper. “But we’re now starting to learn that such policies don’t always produce more public safety. This study indicates they may make us less safe.”

A lot of the study is technical, and it’s data-heavy. Because two of the authors are economists, there’s stuff like this:

It’s not an easy read.

And of course, there are potential problems with the data. Cases that are dropped are more likely to be less significant cases or ones that are less likely to lead to a conviction.

They addressed this by looking across the data at assistant district attorneys who have a history of dropping more charges (across the board) compared to ADAs who have a history of pressing prosecutions.

The conclusions are pretty clear:

We find that, for the marginal defendant, nonprosecution of a nonviolent misdemeanor offense leads to large reductions in the likelihood of a new criminal complaint over the next two years. These local average treatment effects are largest for first-time defendants, suggesting that averting initial entry into the criminal justice system has the greatest benefits. We also present evidence that a recent policy change in Suffolk County imposing a presumption of nonprosecution for a set of nonviolent misdemeanor offenses had similar beneficial effects: the likelihood of future criminal justice involvement fell, with no apparent increase in local crime.

This is a big deal: The study notes that more than 13 million residents of the US are charged with misdemeanors every year, and that these cases make up 80 percent of the cases in the criminal justice system.

When a first-time arrest leads to prosecution, the person is far, far more likely to be arrested again. When the charges are dropped, the person is far, far more likely to stay out of the criminal justice system.

The reasons are pretty clear. People who are arrested and held in jail or face charges tend to lose jobs, housing, and family connections. That’s particularly true in places that use cash bail.

From the study:

Cases that are not prosecuted by definition are closed on the day of arraignment. By contrast, the average time to disposition for prosecuted nonviolent misdemeanor cases in our sample is 185 days. This time spent in the criminal justice system may disrupt defendants’ work and family lives. Cases that are not prosecuted also by definition do not result in convictions, but 26% of prosecuted nonviolent misdemeanor cases in our sample result in a conviction. Criminal records of misdemeanor convictions may decrease defendants’ labor market prospects and increase their likelihoods of future prosecution and criminal record acquisition, conditional on future arrest. Finally, cases that are not prosecuted are at much lower risk of resulting in a criminal record of the complaint in the statewide criminal records system.

And so:

The results of our analysis imply that if all arraigning ADAs acted more like the most lenient ADAs in our sample when deciding which cases to prosecute, Suffolk County would likely see a reduction in criminal justice involvement for these nonviolent misdemeanor defendants. Because nonviolent misdemeanor defendants in Suffolk County are disproportionately Black, reducing the prosecution of nonviolent misdemeanor offenses would disproportionately benefit Black residents of the county.

The study didn’t look at felonies, but given the recidivism rate for people who are sent to prison, it’s entirely possible that further research might show that reducing, or even dropping, felonies in favor of alternatives like restorative justice make community more, not less, safe.

This is the approach Boudin is taking. In the short term, he’s getting hit by the news media. In the long term, his approach may be creating a safer city.

“We have a lot of work to do,” Boudin told me recently. It’s not going to be easy, but the emerging data is on the side of reform.

Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond has been a political and investigative reporter in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He spent much of that time as executive editor of the Bay Guardian. He is the founder of 48hills.
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  1. Sfobrink
    “if people who commit crimes get released they continue to commit crimes” Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Locking people up in the US for crimes like petty theft and drug dealing has not always been an effective crime deterrent for the most part. It doesn’t address the root cause and it stigmatizes people for life so that they can’t get a job or housing in some cases. it creates a generational cycle of downtrodden people.

    We are trying to talk about very complex problems – this article doesn’t really address the issue of so-called “white collar” crimes like the type committed by the Enron executives or Trump & Co. White collar crime is rampant in our society and if the US Department of Justice starts prosecuting high level offenders the country could really be cleaned up from the top down.

    The US is woefully lacking in resources to diagnose and treat complex mental disorders. Many people could lead crime free productive lives if they had proper diagnosis and treatment. We are only beginning to understand how the human brain works .MRIs of the brains of people with schizophrenia show clear structural abnormalities in different lobes but they are not clear how or why this happens.

    And yes there are just some trouble causers who commit crimes against the public and doing nothing makes the problem worse. The best solution IMHO is the one the Brits tried when they made Australia a penal colony. Ship people far away and let them start making a life for themselves in a rural area . We are just running out of space on the planet – I predict people will be sent to space colonies as reform before long

  2. @sfrobink Nextdoor is full of a bunch of hysterical racist nitwits who’ve become more panicked about every little thing around them as they’ve been confined to their homes and exaggerate reality to fit their app-reinforced delusions. jfyi.

  3. @Brian t this is an argument for defunding the police. If they aren’t doing their job, then take that money and put it into programs that will prevent crime in other ways.

  4. In answer to Simba – I too have thought about addressing roots of crime. One root is not having money to survive. How is that to be addressed? This is an expensive city to live in.. Has anyone come up with plans to pay people to do simple kinds of work? Like if there were places they could go to, to make a useful item and get paid for it so they don’t have to resort to stealing from the public because they have no money?

    More roots – dealing with alcohol and drug addictions. That takes places to handle it. But then afterwards, people still need a way to earn some money. So back to the paragraph above this one.

    More roots – people with mental illness will need a place to go to.

    More roots – meeting basic needs, like housing, like medical, like dental. It’s a big topic. At least the city has put a lot of people up in hotel housing. I wish that could be continued.

    I probably haven’t even mentioned half the “roots” issues.

  5. I’m going to post again. It is not a deterrent to crime to not press charges. If people who commit crimes get released, they continue to commit their crimes against the public.

    I read what 22,000 neighbors in my NextDoor neighborhood chat site discuss daily about crimes committed here. Here’s an example – someone was really pleased that he got someone arrested for breaking into cars in the Mollie Stone parking lot at Calif/Fillmore. Then he said he saw the same person out 2 weeks later in that same parking lot breaking into cars!! Why?! Why was this person let out to continue committing the same crime?! I find it unbelievable.

    And if the police know the DA’s office is going to release people they bring in, it’s hardly an incentive for them to do so. It’s really frustrating to hear Chesa state in monthly online hall meetings that crime is down, according to the police dashboard. No it isn’t. It’s higher than anyone has ever seen or experienced in this city. Including direct attacks on people on the street and their dogs, etc. And oftentimes, the perpetrators can’t be found. For one thing, they’re wearing masks. What we have is an epidemic of crime happening in stores, businesses, breaking into cars, into garages, into homes, attacking tourists who are showing up at police headquarters with their rental car broken into and their luggage and passports taken. This city isn’t even safe for tourists!

    And how about the recent tragic loss of wonderful people like Hanako Abe and Sheria Musyoka, pedestrians who were both killed by drivers running red lights under the influence with extensive criminal records. How come Chesa wasn’t watching Troy McAllister’s parole situation? How come he let Jerry Lyons out when he was supposed to be held for 60 days in an SF jail for a DUI? As far as I’m concerned, this DA is not safe for anyone and needs to go. This is not just a Republican right-wing attack on Chesa – this is a serious community crying out to not allow people who are committing crimes to be released back out to continue hurting the public.

    Maybe if there isn’t room in CA jails, then people could be sent to out-of-state jails? We don’t want those committing criminal acts here anymore.

  6. Joe Biden is on tv right now talking about the largest infrastructure program in the US since the 1940s. People who are well fed don’t steal food, people who have cats don’t steal other peoples cars. Int it better to get to the root of the problem instead of locking people up?

  7. Correlation is not causation. It’s just as likely that the crime is still happening. It’s just that (as is 100% the case in SF), police realize that folks they arrest for misdemeanors almost never face any real consequences, so they stop arresting the criminals. Why do all that paperwork for nothing? Police are human beings and this is a natural human behavioral reaction. More crimes still happen. You’re just teaching cops to ignore it. Otherwise they would have to be crazy — i.e., doing the same thing over and over again (arresting) and expecting a different result (consequences).

  8. This makes sense to me. A young person who commits a non violent crime and is arrested should be forced to do public service or some restitution to the crime victim if there is one. Convicting a person of even a minor non violent crime limits their ability to ever participate in society and earn a living for the most part.

    It truly seems we are creating lifetime criminals by not helping them learn how their first crime was wrong and having them offer restitution of some sort, vs just tossing them in jail.

    I see many conservatives (Dem or Rep) here in SF who I think truly just wants us to lock up everyone and toss the keys, but they also are the same who refuse to pay to jail all these people.

  9. As someone who has been a violent crime victim more than once and fortunate enough to never have been arrested for anything its safe to say that every situation is different. Shoplifting is wrong, however nowadays almost all stores have cameras to see what everyone is doing. The fact is American prisons are way too overcrowded as a percentage of the population, the worst in the world. We need to try a different approach.
    Given Biden and Harris a chance – big progressive changes are going to come in our society if they can stay in long enough to implement them. Good jobs will be created so that people don’t need to resort to crime to survive. The very rich will pay enough to invest in infrastructure in our country. The schools will improve and be less expensive so people don’t have to mortgage their life away to get a workable degree. Stay tuned for the boom.

  10. I don’t understand. We are dealing with a flood of crimes on a daily basis here. I read them reported to the community on the NextDoor neighborhood chatsite. Everyone is saying there are no consequences for people committing crimes worth less than $950. I see it myself, going into stores and seeing visible shoplifting. Why are we tolerating any crime? A crime is a crime, whether it’s shoplifting, assault on the street, breaking in to garages, homes, cars, stores, businesses, etc? No charge for crimes? I see this as saying it’s ok, people, you can do whatever you want. And that is not acceptable. Progressives and leftists may be tolerant people, may be nice people, but that doesn’t mean we should be allowing crime to happen – that isn’t nice at all to anyone who is HURT BY THESE CRIMES!

  11. Tim, did the study include domestic violence cases?

    Because the prevailing rule of thumb for DV cases pretty much everywhere is zero tolerance. If you drop a DV charge then the conventional wisdom is that it will embolden the abuser to do it again. While the remedies that protect victims derive from a successful prosecution.

    It would be good to see how the study results break down by type of crime.

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