Another good argument for dealing with low-level, nonviolent offenders in a smarter way

A new study by the National Bureau of Economic Research has found that low level offenders who are not prosecuted are less likely to commit another crime.

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One man was killed and another wounded in a shooting April 18, 2021 in Austin.

All too often, an important study has found, taking the toughest approach to prosecuting low level offenders just makes matters worse.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

As a nation, America spends far too much time and money pursuing petty criminals, and we can’t see much benefit in that.

More than 80% of all criminal cases processed through the nation’s justice system are misdemeanors — a homeless person panhandling outside a coffee shop, an addict who stole $50 to feed a drug habit — that steal hundreds of hours in law enforcement time that could be better spent investigating murders, gun crimes and other serious, violent offenses.

And all too often, as an important new analysis of almost 15 years of crime data has found, taking an overly tough approach to prosecuting petty offenders just makes matters worse. Nonviolent, misdemeanor offenders who are not prosecuted are actually less likely to be arrested for another crime anytime soon.

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The typical alleged misdemeanor offender, it seems, too often gets caught up in a criminal justice system that is poorly equipped to deal with poverty, poor schooling, mental illness and all the other social ills at the roots of so much crime.

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Or perhaps the alleged offender loses his job because of time spent in jails and courtrooms, only to end up with a conviction or arrest record that makes it harder to find the next job.

In 185 days — the average time, according to the study, that it took to dispose of a non-violent, misdemeanor case — a lot can happen to derail a life already teetering off the tracks.

A 14-year study in Boston

The analysis from the National Bureau of Economic Research is based on data from 2004 to 2018 on non-violent, non-firearms related misdemeanor cases in Boston and its suburbs.

The researchers looked at the differences in outcomes between cases that were prosecuted and those that were not, and concluded that “non-prosecution of a nonviolent misdemeanor offense leads to large reductions in the likelihood of a new criminal complaint over the next two years.” The difference was especially stark for first-time offenders.

Defendants whose cases were dropped, the researchers found, were 33% less likely to be arrested again within two years compared to those whose cases were prosecuted.

Think of that: People are more likely to be arrested a second time just because they were arrested once.

“If we have scarce law enforcement resources, should we be focusing those on non-violent crimes?” Kimberley Smith of the University of Chicago Crime Lab said. “Or should we be focused on crimes that are actually hurting people and causing harm to society?”

Finding alternatives

The analysis, as Frank Main of the Sun-Times reported on Sunday, seems a powerful argument in support of the approach to criminal justice favored by Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, who has declined to prosecute thousands of low-level offenses since taking office in 2016. Foxx told Main that the police — who in Chicago have the authority to file misdemeanor charges without the initial approval of prosecutors — should heed the findings of the study and develop more policing alternatives.

Fair-minded people, we feel sure, understand the moral and practical arguments for helping and rehabilitating, rather than prosecuting, nonviolent offenders. Foxx’s office has targeted more resources in recent years to misdemeanor diversion programs that keep small-time crimes from clogging up the court system.

But police officers, as well, need more and better options. As Foxx said, “If a cop responds to a storeowner who wants a drunk person off the sidewalk, what’s the alternative?”

One such initiative has been at work, as a kind of experiment, since 2018 in Chicago’s Garfield Park neighborhood on the West Side, which is served by the Harrison Police District. And if an upcoming U. of C. Crime Lab evaluation of the initiative — the Narcotics Alternative Diversion Program — finds it has been effective, we urge the city to invest in its expansion.

Gun violence and drug dealing are common in Garfield Park, leaving the police with no shortage of serious crime to deal with. Yet, as Smith told us, “officers were arresting a lot of people, spending a lot of time processing people for a gram of heroin, all while shootings were taking place outside.”

The diversion program allows officers to send people caught with small amounts of drugs to treatment programs, rather than charge them with a crime. So far, 500 men and women have been diverted to treatment. Dozens more have walked into the Harrison Police Station on their own and requested treatment, something the program allows.

What reform looks like

The Crime Lab evaluation will look at whether the program has reduced the likelihood that someone is re-arrested and whether other more positive life outcomes, such as finding a job, have increased.

“What we’re seeing so far is encouraging,” Smith said.

This, we want to believe, is what criminal justice reform in Chicago will really look like.

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