Don’t Blame Progressive Prosecutors for Rising Crime
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Violent crime in urban America is rising. There have been 13.5% more homicides so far in 2021 compared to last year, across 84 cities, and the trend is widespread: Homicides are up in two-thirds of cities. The increase is real and worrisome.
Many observers say that progressive prosecutors are to blame for this rise, arguing that criminals are taking advantage of greater leniency to wreak havoc in their neighborhoods. It’s not a crazy hypothesis — criminals respond to incentives, just like everyone else — but recent research shows it is not true.
It’s worth asking what exactly progressive prosecutors are doing and why. In their view, they are trying to reduce the unnecessary harms of the criminal justice system. Their reforms include declining to prosecute many petty offenses, like trespassing and shoplifting; diverting more serious offenses, including drug crimes, to treatment instead of incarceration; and releasing more people who are awaiting trial rather than requesting bail and detaining them for weeks or months.
It's possible that such reforms could allow more troublemakers to remain on the streets, giving them more opportunities to do harm. Or these reforms could allow prosecutors to spend more time on serious offenders — people who have been charged with robbery, aggravated assault or murder.
If the latter is true, prosecutors could deter would-be violent offenders from committing similar crimes. Meanwhile, it’s possible that pulling minor offenders into the criminal justice system — by prosecuting and convicting low-level offenders, or jailing defendants while they await trial — could do more harm than good, resulting in those individuals committing more crime in the future, not less.
First, we measured the effects of dismissing nonviolent misdemeanor offenses, using data from 2000 to 2018 in Suffolk County, Mass., where Boston is located. Cases there are assigned to prosecutors in a way that is effectively random, but prosecutors vary quite a bit in their leniency.
This created in effect a natural experiment. Some defendants get lucky and get a lenient prosecutor who dismisses their case. Others are unlucky and get a harsh prosecutor who pursues the charges. According to our research, the “lucky” defendants are 58% less likely to be arrested again in the subsequent two years. This included a reduction in new violent and felony arrests.
Second, we considered the impacts of a policy change. A progressive prosecutor, Rachael Rollins, became Suffolk County district attorney in January 2019. She implemented a presumption of non-prosecution for a list of 15 nonviolent misdemeanor offenses. That is, she changed the default action taken by her line prosecutors, pushing them to be more lenient. We found no evidence that this policy change resulted in a rise in crime.
Finally, in ongoing work, we are analyzing how local crime rates changed after newly elected progressive prosecutors took office over the past decade. These prosecutors enacted a mix of policies — including less pretrial detention, more diversion from traditional convictions and jail time, and/or less prosecution of minor offenses. So far, using data from 10 urban U.S. districts, we have found no evidence that these prosecutors’ reforms have increased crime rates, including homicide rates.
This new evidence follows two strands of earlier research. One shows that detaining fewer people before trial leads defendants to commit fewer crimes. Another shows that diverting nonviolent felony defendants (thus allowing them to avoid a conviction if they successfully complete a probationary period) reduces future offending.
In short, the best evidence so far — including new research directly considering the effects of recently elected progressive prosecutors — implies that progressive prosecutors’ reforms are not the cause of rising homicide and shooting rates.
This research doesn’t say exactly where prosecutors should draw the line on leniency, of course. But their current policies do not appear to be doing any harm — and in some cases appear to be doing substantial good. So instead of demanding that they retract their policies, it may be more productive to focus on other options that are more likely to save lives.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Jennifer Doleac is an associate professor of economics and director of the Justice Tech Lab at Texas A&M University. She is also the host of Probable Causation, a podcast about law, economics and crime.
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