Politics professor at New York University Anna Harvey, Rutgers University economist Amanda Agan, and Texas A&M economist Jennifer Doleac conducted a study January of 2019 intended to show that the decision not to pursue prosecution for low-level nonviolent misdemeanors actually worked as a deterrent to recidivism and lowered crime rates. The finished report was released March 29, 2021.
The first study of its kind, released by the National Bureau of Economic Research, compiled eight months of data from Massachusetts’ Suffolk County District Attorney (“DA”) Rachael Rollins and compared it to similar prosecutions in Suffolk County over the previous 15 years. Rollins is a reform-minded DA who campaigned with the promise to approach a group of 15 nonviolent misdemeanors with the presumption of non-prosecution for first time offenders. This decision was the element researchers believed primary to support their comparison. Researchers were able to collect 67,000 cases where decision to prosecute fell primarily on the Assistant DA’s benevolence.
The results showed that less than 50% of those people Assistant DAs chose not to prosecute went on to commit new offenses. Their likelihood of committing a violent offense within the next two years was 64% lower than those who were prosecuted on their first offense. New offenses for those accused of similar crimes was 33% lower for those who were not prosecuted. “It’s remarkable, and we need to be screaming this from the rooftops,” said Rollins.
The study observed that these criminal convictions disrupted family affairs and ruined lives. It affected employment status and interrupted income. Convictions reduced potential employability. In addition, the study considered this an important racial issue. It stated that Blacks were responsible for 46% of all nonviolent misdemeanor cases although they totaled only 24% of the county population. Showing the choice not to prosecute would have a massive effect on the Black community.
Rollins said the resources saved could be redirected into community programs such as help for the mentally ill or drug addiction programs. Harvard law professor Alexandra Natapoff agreed. “These cases that we treat as chump change, in fact, are destroying lives, and destroying families, and undermining the economic well-being of communities thousands of times over every day.” Natapoff is also the author of the 2018 book, Punishment Without Crime: How Our Massive Misdemeanor System Traps the Innocent and Makes America More Unequal.
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