New, first-of-its-kind research looking at Suffolk County criminal cases finds that declining to prosecute some low-level offenses can actually lead to less crime.
Researchers from three universities analyzed 67,553 misdemeanor cases in Boston, Winthrop, Revere and Chelsea from 2004 to 2018, which didn't include the tenure of current District Attorney Rachael Rollins. She took office in 2019.
People arrested but not prosecuted on low-level, nonviolent misdemeanors — like shoplifting, drug possession or motor vehicle offenses — were 58% less likely to commit another crime in Suffolk County in the following two years, according to the study.
"Our results imply that a prosecutor's decision to not charge a defendant with a nonviolent misdemeanor significantly reduces their probability of future criminal legal contact," Rutgers University professor Amanda Agan, one of the researchers, said. "Or put the other direction: prosecuting these defendants actually decreases public safety."
Most nonviolent misdemeanor cases, even if they are prosecuted, don't end in a conviction. Three out of four end without a conviction, but will show up on a person's criminal record, affecting their job prospects and ability to secure housing.
Rollins, speaking to WBUR's Radio Boston Monday, said this confirms what she and many others have believed about how to handle low-level crimes.
"When we are compassionate and allow them to go on with their lives ... they often don't come back into contact with the criminal legal system and we are safer as a result of that," she said.
When she took office, Rollins drew criticism from police unions, state public safety officials and business owners over her directive to assistant district attorneys to decline prosecution for certain nonviolent misdemeanor crimes, like disorderly conduct, driving with a suspended license or trespassing.
A more limited analysis of cases since Rollins took office finds significantly fewer nonviolent misdemeanor crimes were prosecuted, according to researchers. There's been no change in prosecutions of violent crimes or more serious felonies.
And the researchers' review of Boston crime data from January 2017 to February 2020 found significant reductions in reports of property damage, theft and fraud after Rollins took office, and no increase in disorder or drug crime reports.
"We see no evidence that her inauguration and this expansion of presumptive non prosecution decreases public safety," Agan said. "If anything, it increases it."
Agan said the researchers weren't able to look deeply at the effect of race, ethnicity or gender on whether cases are prosecuted or not, because often that information was missing from the data. (In the Massachusetts court system, information is written on paper forms and then entered into a database by hand.)
But from what they could glean, the effect of nonprosecution on reoffense rates were not statistically different by gender or race.
Rollins said her office dismissed, declined to prosecute or diverted 57% of cases in 2019, up from 42% under previous DA Dan Conley. She said that frees her office up to pursue more serious cases.
"What I choose to do is work on the over 1,300 unsolved homicides in Boston," she said. "That's where I want my time and attention. Not on a trespass in a park in a neighborhood in Roxbury that's been gentrified."
She said she plans to keep looking at the case data in real time and adjust the office's policies as needed.
This article was originally published on March 29, 2021.