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October 6, 2019

Encouraging new data on reduced arrests for low-level offenses (while national crime rates continue to decline)

This new Wall Street Journal article gets my week off to an encouraging start.  The full headline of the piece sets for the essentials: "Arrests for Low-Level Crimes Are Plummeting, and the Experts Are Flummoxed: Data collected from U.S. cities revealed declines in driving and alcohol-related violations, disorderly conduct, loitering and prostitution." Here are excerpts:

Major police departments around the country are arresting fewer people for minor crimes, according to a growing body of criminal justice data. New statistical studies show a deep, yearslong 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 fell by 80% from 2005 to 2017, a period that saw steep declines in simple assault and drug-related offenses. In Durham, N.C., arrest rates for blacks fell by nearly 50% between 2006 and 2016.  While racial disparities in enforcement persist, researchers say they are surprised by the downward misdemeanor trend, which pushes against ingrained assumptions about overpolicing in urban areas.

At the moment, experts can only speculate about what’s behind the decline.  It is expected to be the subject of more study that could yield better understanding in the future. Some say the falling arrest rates signal a fundamental shift in crime prevention. The shrinking misdemeanor system, they say, is evidence that police departments 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, some experts say, could also be driven by technologies like the internet and mobile phones that help to keep social interaction off the streets and inside homes. The growing decriminalization and legalization of marijuana has also contributed, they say.  “The enforcement powers of the police are being used far less often,” said Jeremy Travis, a former president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan. It is a “very deep reset of the fundamental relationship between police and public.”

Millions of Americans are swept into the misdemeanor system every year, but only recently have scholars sought to dig into the numbers of low-level crime. Criminal data and research have focused on violent felonies like rape and murder and more serious drug-dealing offenses, while statistics on misdemeanors have been notoriously inconsistent and spotty.

Historically, few jurisdictions made it possible to track how many people were arrested for crimes like turnstile jumping, disorderly conduct, marijuana possession, shoplifting, trespassing, drunken-driving and fist fight assaults.  Federal investigations into policing practices in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore, and scrutiny of aggressive policing tactics like “stop-and-frisk,” helped to raise the visibility of misdemeanor justice and its impact on poor minority communities.  Most defendants charged with petty offenses serve little or no time behind bars but pay court fines and fees or get their cases conditionally dismissed.

Researchers saw misdemeanors as another unchecked, racially unbalanced police power creating barriers to housing, employment and education.  With millions of dollars in grants, a network of scholars led by John Jay collected data from several cities and released reports over the past year.  Other studies revealed similar patterns.  A December report by the Public Policy Institute of California found that misdemeanor rates in California declined by close to 60% between 1989 and 2016.  Los Angeles police made 112,570 misdemeanor arrests in 2008 and 60,063 by 2017, largely driven by declines in driving and alcohol-related offenses, according to John Jay’s research network.

A forthcoming paper by law professors at George Mason University and the University of Georgia also found sizable arrest declines in rural Virginia, San Antonio and other jurisdictions.  Other indications include shrinking caseloads reported by the National Center for State Courts and arrest tallies by the Federal Bureau of Investigation showing steady declines in disorderly conduct, drunkenness, prostitution and loitering violations....

Compared with the felony system, misdemeanor enforcement is much less sensitive to actual crime rates and more influenced by changing political and cultural winds, says Alexandra Natapoff, a University of California-Irvine law professor.

In addition to the great news that we are finally gathering better data on misdemeanor systems, it is even greater news that we are using it less. In this post some months ago, I spotlighted LawProf Alexandra Natapoff's terrific book highlighting how much harm and punishment can come with the misdemeanor process.  And, though not mentioned in the WSJ article, I think it critical to note that the reduction in low-level arrests has come at the same time as a great reduction in violent and property crimes over the last decade (details here on latest FBI crime data).  I think we all ought to hope and aspire for a world with less crime and less punishment, and that seems to be what we are starting to achieve in recent years.

October 6, 2019 at 12:15 PM | Permalink

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