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March 29, 2021

New empirical study finds "nonprosecution of a nonviolent misdemeanor offense leads to large reductions in the likelihood of a new criminal complaint"

This local press piece from Boston reports on new local empirical work that is likely to garner a lot of attention around the nation. The press article is titled "Study finds not prosecuting misdemeanors reduces defendants’ subsequent arrests," and it discusses at length the findings in this new Working Paper (also here) titled "Misdemeanor Prosecution" authored by Amanda Agan, Jennifer Doleac and Anna Harvey. Here is the abstract of the Working Paper:

Communities across the United States are reconsidering the public safety benefits of prosecuting nonviolent misdemeanor offenses. So far there has been little empirical evidence to inform policy in this area. In this paper we report the first estimates of the causal effects of misdemeanor prosecution on defendants' subsequent criminal justice involvement. We leverage the as-if random assignment of nonviolent misdemeanor cases to Assistant District Attorneys (ADAs) who decide whether a case should move forward with prosecution in the Suffolk County District Attorney's Office in Massachusetts. These ADAs vary in the average leniency of their prosecution decisions. 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 rates.

And here is part of the discussion from the press piece highlighting why this is research could prove so potent:

A study examining the effect of declining to prosecute lower-level nonviolent offenses — a signature policy adopted by Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins that has drawn both praise and scorn — suggests the approach leads to significantly less future involvement by those defendants in the criminal justice system.

The new study, which looked at cases handled by the Suffolk County DA’s office going back to 2004, found that those defendants not prosecuted for lower-level misdemeanor cases were 58 percent less likely to face a criminal complaint over the following two years than those who faced prosecution for similar charges. 

The analysis, which is the first of its kind to rigorously evaluate a policy being embraced by reform-minded prosecutors across the country, provides striking evidence that steering defendants, particularly first-time offenders, away from prosecution and a criminal record can reduce their chances of cycling back into the legal system.

The findings, being released on Monday by the National Bureau of Economic Research, are likely to bring heightened attention to the question of how best to deal with lower-level offenses, an issue that has become a controversial topic among law enforcement officials and advocates who say prosecution of these cases exacts an enormous toll on poor and minority communities without enhancing public safety....

“We think this is pretty compelling evidence of beneficial effects from not prosecuting,” said Anna Harvey, a professor of politics at New York University, who led the research along with Amanda Agan, an economist at Rutgers University, and Jennifer Doleac, an economist at Texas A & M University.  The higher rates of new criminal complaints among those who did face prosecution for lower-level charges, on the other hand, mean “we may in fact be undermining public safety by criminalizing relatively minor forms of misbehavior,” write Harvey and her colleagues....

Alexandra Natapoff, a professor at Harvard Law School who has extensively studied the prosecution of misdemeanor offenses, said the study “gives empirical teeth to just how costly and counterproductive low-level misdemeanor arrests and court criminal convictions can be.”  Natapoff, author of the 2018 book Punishment Without Crime: How Our Massive Misdemeanor System Traps the Innocent and Makes America More Unequal, said we have paid far too little attention to the harmful impact on individuals and communities of prosecuting misdemeanors, which account for 80 percent of all criminal cases in the US.  “These cases that we treat as chump change, in fact, are destroying lives, and destroying families, and undermining the economic wellbeing of communities thousands of times over every day,” Natapoff said in a recent video explainer on the reach of misdemeanor convictions.

Miriam Krinsky, executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution, a group formed in 2017 to work with reform-minded DAs, called the study an affirmation of the changing approach to prosecution underway in a number of major cities.  “We are seeing a new normal among elected prosecutors who, like DA Rollins, share a view that we have prosecuted too many individuals who can be better addressed by treatment or support through a public health lens,” she said.  “It’s incredibly significant to see research like this that proves the value of the new thinking and the paradigm shift that’s taking place.”

March 29, 2021 at 03:09 PM | Permalink

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