Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins’ decision not to prosecute low-level nonviolent offenses could actually be reducing the occurence of more serious crimes by those same defendants, according to a study released today by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
Shortly after taking over a district attorney two years ago, Rollins directed her prosecutors to dismiss most cases involving 15 nonviolent misdemeanors such as trespassing, shoplifting, resisting arrest and possession of drugs with intent to distribute.
Analyzing what happened to those defendants for two years after the cases were dismissed, university researchers found significant reductions in the rates of defendants getting rearrested for misdemeanors or felony charges.
“The data was startling,” Rollins told GBH News. “In that one- or two-year period, they don't come back. Or if they do touch the system again, it's for something below where they entered.”
The study analyzed more than 67,000 cases in Suffolk County dating back to 2004, when Rollins’ predecessor ran the prosecutor’s office. The Bureau of Economic Research is a private, non-profit think tank based in Cambridge that does research for policy makers but does not make policy recommendations.
Researchers compared the defendants whose low-level nonviolent offenses were dismissed to defendants whose cases were prosecuted.
“Surprisingly, prosecuting these nonviolent misdemeanor cases actually increased the likelihood of a later arrest, including later arrests for violent and felony offenses,” said Anna Harvey, director of New York University’s Public Safety Lab and a coauthor of the report. “Law enforcement has historically pursued punitive policies directed at these quality-of-life offenses … but we’re now starting to learn that such policies don't always produce more public safety. This study indicates they may make us less safe.”
Harvey’s report points to how prosecutions even for low-level offenses can drag on for months, disrupt work lives and create criminal records that damage a defendants’ employment chances.
Rollins, like other progressive district attorneys in the country, has faced pushback from other law enforcement leaders.
Two years ago, Thomas Turco, then Gov. Charlie Baker’s public safety director, wrote to Rollins, criticizing her for the list of offenses she said she would decline to prosecute.
“Several policies announced in the memo would, if implemented as proposed, put at risk the commonwealth’s ongoing efforts to combat the ongoing crisis of the opioid epidemic and substantially restrict government’s ability to protect victims threatened with serious crimes,” Turco wrote.
The Executive Office of Public Safety and Security — Turco's former office — declined to comment on the new study released by the Bureau of Economic Research.
Others offered praise for the report validating Rollins’ approach.
“Without the stigma and disruption caused by minor offenses, people are more likely to maintain housing and employment situations, which are important factors in reducing recidivism,” said GBH News legal analyst Daniel Medwed. “(Rollins) is among the handful of progressive DA’s out there who are bucking the law-and-order template for chief prosecutors.”
Anthony Benedetti, chief counsel for the Committee for Public Counsel Services, said he hopes the new report spurs similar changes statewide.
“This study is more evidence that many prosecutions are misguided forms of control that actually do not deter crime but lead to more crime,” he said. “We hope studies like this will cause other prosecutors to rethink their strategies in pursuit of a criminal legal system that is not overburdened with unnecessary cases that follow our clients throughout their lives.”