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 crime.
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 lawlessness.
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 arrests overall.
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 reason.
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 2017.)
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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