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The public safety benefits of not prosecuting low-level crimes

Both Boston and Baltimore have shown that new thinking on policing and prosecution promotes public safety and protects communities of color.

A screenshot from police body camera footage shows Mario Arenales Gonzalez on April 19, the day he died in police custody in Alameda, Calif.ALAMEDA POLICE DEPARTMENT/NYT

Another week, another name, and another death: another misdemeanor killing and another gaping hole in the families of those who struggle to go on without a loved one.

Mario Arenales Gonzalez appeared to be loitering and drunk in an Alameda, Calif., park. Daunte Wright was driving his car near Minneapolis with an expired registration and an air freshener hanging from the rearview mirror. While the world watched the Derek Chauvin trial, these men died at the hands of police. They are now part of a horrible litany of names, joining George Floyd, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, and too many others. George Floyd was stopped over a counterfeit $20 bill; Eric Garner was selling loose cigarettes; Sandra Bland, who was found hanged in a police cell in Texas and whose death was ruled a suicide, was pulled over for failing to signal a lane change. It is outrageous that these lives were lost over such trivial matters. It is imperative that communities reimagine policing in a way that reduces our reliance on arresting and prosecuting misdemeanors as a way to solve societal failures.


For decades, our country believed that zero-tolerance policing was the most effective way of reducing crime. But that approach was built on the backs of poor and Black, Indigenous, and people of color communities. Broken windows policing — the theory that prosecuting low-level crimes will prevent more serious crimes — led to broken spirits within the Black community, and with what feels like a police killing every week. That approach desperately needs to be changed.

Last year, the Baltimore state’s attorney’s office announced it would stop prosecuting the crimes of drug possession, sex work, and other minor offenses. In the 12 months since the policy was implemented, the office has seen an 80 percent drop in drug arrests, an 18 percent reduction in the incarcerated population, and a 39 percent reduction in people entering the criminal legal system. As a result, the office recently made these policy changes permanent, and, in lieu of prosecution, the office partnered with local crisis response and sex work organizations to get people the help and support they deserve.


Around the same time in Boston, the Suffolk County district attorney’s office released findings that supported both its own decline-to-prosecute policy as well as Baltimore’s. In early 2019, the DA instructed her line prosecutors to presumptively divert, decline, or dismiss 15 categories of minor, nonviolent misdemeanor offenses such as drug possession, trespassing, and disorderly conduct. The new policy stressed that the office’s limited resources were better focused on the violent, serious crimes plaguing poor Black and brown neighborhoods, and the county’s 1,300 unsolved homicides.

The findings of this research, published in a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, turned conventional thinking about the need to prosecute petty offenses on its head. Researchers analyzed 67,500 cases handled by the Suffolk County DA’s office over a 17-year period and found that not prosecuting nonviolent misdemeanors reduces future involvement with the criminal legal system by 67 percent.

Both Boston and Baltimore have shown that new thinking on policing and prosecution better promotes public safety and protects poor and BIPOC from negative and potentially deadly interactions with law enforcement. These cities have also shown that it’s possible to rectify the stark racial disparities in misdemeanor offenses. Similarly, a recent ACLU report showed that criminalizing sex work is disproportionately harmful to specific groups. “These tend to be communities that are already the most marginalized in our society,” the report said, “including LGBTQ people, people of color, and immigrants, particularly undocumented immigrants, and those living at the intersections of these identifies.”


To be clear, not all police killings are a result of misdemeanors. But not arresting for these offenses does reduce the chance of these deadly interactions, for the police and for the community. And while we do recognize that drug use, sex work, homelessness, and other issues also represent challenges for communities, we do not believe these issues will be resolved by law enforcement. Public health programs and community organizations must be better funded to handle these societal challenges.

One thing we can hopefully all agree on: A minor offense should never be a death sentence. Prosecutors have immense power to reshape the criminal legal system. It can be done in a way that promotes public safety and protects our most marginalized populations as well as members of law enforcement. Too many people have lost their lives for us not to reimagine and change the way we police and prosecute in this country.

Marilyn J. Mosby is the Baltimore City state’s attorney. Rachael Rollins is the Suffolk County district attorney.