Emily Bazelon writes in The New York Times:
Accumulating research in well-designed studies
supports the idea, counterintuitive though it may seem, that prosecuting fewer
people can actually reduce crime. Last year, for instance, researchers looked
at more than 67,000 misdemeanor cases in Suffolk County, Mass., which includes
Boston, and found that people arrested but not charged
for offenses like drug possession and shoplifting were less than half as likely
as those who were prosecuted to be arrested again two years later for a new
Another study from Harris County, Texas, which
includes Houston, found that people charged for the first time with felonies,
including drug possession and theft, were almost half as likely to reoffend
over 10 years if they were offered an alternative to prison, supervision while
they live in their communities, which upon completion led to dismissal of the
charges against them. A third study published last month found that diversion for young
people for some felonies in San Francisco reduced the probability of a
subsequent conviction by a third over two years.
This research measures what’s called specific
deterrence — the chance that a person directly affected by a policy will be
deterred from future crime. One key motivation for success for offenders is to
avoid a major barrier to employment, a criminal record. In
the Harris County study, those diverted from prison were almost twice as likely
to be employed later as those who were not. People with jobs have a better shot
at leading a stable life, and that discourages crime.
None of these studies found an overall increase in
crime. This is called general deterrence — the effect a policy has on the crime
rate. In another study from 2021, the researchers who
conducted the study in Suffolk County looked at the effect on local crime rates
of so-called progressive prosecutors, who rely less on jail and prison. In 35
jurisdictions, a progressive district attorney had no significant effect on the
rate of serious crimes. A modicum of mercy, it turned out, did not lead to
Since the 18th century, the concept of deterrence
has been based on the swiftness, certainty and severity of punishment. The
research backs up New York City district attorneys Alvin Bragg who is betting that his predecessors overrated the effectiveness of severe penalties.
On the other hand, swiftness and certainty of
punishment, which hinge on the probability that a crime is detected, are
important in holding down crime. The evidence shows, not surprisingly, that when more police officers are
around, people are more likely to believe they’ll be caught if they commit a
crime. But, more important, police presence can deter crime without increasing
Increasing misdemeanor arrests produces little value in public safety while disproportionally affecting Black residents, which helps
explain why far more Black than white people report fearing the police — even to the point that
some say they’d rather be robbed than questioned by an officer without good
Relying on the police and prosecutors to prevent
crime, as many cities have more or less done for decades, is a mistake, argue
some public safety experts. City governments “can provide as much, if not more,
safety as police, without the unavoidable toxicity that comes with force” when
they work with residents and local organizations to strengthen the social
fabric of neighborhoods, according to Elizabeth Glazer, a director of Mayor
Bill de Blasio’s Office of Criminal Justice, and Patrick Sharkey, a sociologist
at Princeton, in a 2021 report for the Square One
Project, a justice reform group.
They call for continuing efforts to expand youth
employment programs, mental-health services, the deployment of neighborhood
workers trained to stop disputes from escalating into violence, and the
redesign of public spaces. Studies have shown that planting
grass and trees on vacant lots is associated with significant drops in
gun violence. If people feel safe, then they’re more likely to be out and
about, serving as eyes on the street. And the stronger the connections are
among residents, the more likely they are to look out for one another.
New York had a rough 2020 and 2021, when homicides
and shootings rose, as they did across the country in the pandemic. The fatal
shootings so far this year, including the killing of two police officers who
were responding to a 911 call in Harlem and a teenager working at Burger King,
have prompted the new mayor, Eric Adams, to pick up the old law-and-order tools
— a police crackdown and a call for prosecuting 16- and 17-year-olds caught
with illegal guns as adults if they don’t disclose where they got the weapon.
(The New York Legislature raised the age of criminal responsibility to 18 in
But Mayor Adams is ignoring the lessons of his own
city. The Brooklyn district attorney’s office under Eric Gonzalez, another
progressive, runs a voluntary diversion program for young people caught with
guns that has lowered the rate of rearrest and conviction for those in the
program compared to their peers who went to prison. Participants plead guilty
and then, instead of being locked up, get the help of a social worker to find a
job or go to school.
Around the city, courts in partnership with
nonprofit organizations have developed other successful diversion programs. Almost 25,000
people a year participate in programs through the Center for Court
Innovation that offer mental-health and substance-abuse counseling and
“restorative-justice circles” where offenders must reckon with the impact of
their wrongdoing and how to rectify it. Officials from other cities routinely
visit New York to see how its programs operate, according to Chidinma Ume and
Brett Taylor of the Center for Court Innovation.
President Biden is coming to the city this week to
meet with Mayor Adams about gun violence — a sign the White House wants to
align with the mayor. It’s a good sign that Mr. Bragg and Mr. Gonzalez are
scheduled to be part of the event as well, according to their offices, and Mr.
Biden should showcase the record and the research that support their approach.
Both point the way to making the city safer and more vital.
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