Fascinating Research: Not Prosecuting Some Non-Violent Misdemeanors Reduces Future Criminal Activity
For decades most criminal justice experts and district attorneys accepted the theory that vigorously prosecuting defendants for minor first time offenses would reduce the risk that they would engage in future criminal activity. Recently, more progressive prosecutors have questioned the theory and some have stopped prosecuting certain nonviolent low-level offenses like prostitution, disorderly conduct, trespassing, and drug possession, arguing that it caused "significant harm to marginalized communities." Their point is that once an individual has become an "offender" within our criminal justice system there are unforeseen consequences that push that person toward future criminal activity.
A major new study supports the progressive position.
New research using 14 years worth of data from the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office, conducted by NYU Professor, Anna Harvey, Rutgers University's Amanda Agan, and Texas A & M economics professor, Jennifer Doleac found that not prosecuting some defendants charged with nonviolent misdemeanor offenses can substantially reduce the likelihood of their future contact with the criminal justice system. The impact of not prosecuting seems to be greatest for first-time defendants, "suggesting that averting initial entry into the criminal justice system has the greatest benefits."
Law360: "Misdemeanor defendants who were not prosecuted were 33% less likely to receive a new criminal complaint within two years of their arraignment. They were 58% less likely to get a new criminal complaint than the average defendant who is prosecuted for a related crime. For marginal first-time defendants, evidence suggested they were 80% less likely to get a new criminal complaint within two years, when compared to those who were prosecuted."
"In other words ... prosecuting marginal nonviolent misdemeanor defendants substantially increases their subsequent criminal justice contact," said the study, whose authors included Texas A&M University economics professor Jennifer Doleac and New York University politics and law professor Anna Harvey. "We may in fact be undermining public safety by criminalizing relatively minor forms of misbehavior."
The study also found that nonprosecution of certain offenses didn't encourage others to engage in such activity, the main argument made by those that oppose progressive reforms.
Why nonprosecution of some non-violent misdemeanors seems to reduce future criminal activity is complex and the authors of the study can only begin to unravel the reasons.
WitnessLA: "The authors also noted, not surprisingly, that these most minor of misdemeanor convictions could decrease employment prospects, which in turn increased the likelihood that those who acquired misdemeanor conviction records might turn to “illegal forms of economic activity,” if they could find no other work, post conviction."
"And even when misdemeanor prosecutions don’t result in convictions, according to the 87-page report, the lengthy time it takes one to go through being prosecuted for a misdemeanor arrest — which averaged 185 days to resolve, according to the new report — often will greatly “disrupt the individual’s work and family life.”
And many criminal justice experts will tell you that once an individual has a record and "is in the system," it will forever change their future interactions with police officers and prosecutors.
By: Don Lam & Curated Content