New research suggests it might be wise to cut back on prosecuting petty crimes. But we shouldn’t overinterpret the findings.
Every year, something like 13 million misdemeanor charges are filed in the United States. These charges, ranging from traffic violations to serious assaults, may be less flashy than felonies, but they are the main way Americans experience the criminal-justice system.
We prosecute misdemeanors because, among other things, we want there to be fewer of them, and we believe prosecution deters reoffending. But a recent blockbuster paper makes a startling claim to the contrary: Prosecuting misdemeanants actually increases the likelihood that they will offend again.
The paper has been heralded by supporters of progressive district attorneys who have used their position to unilaterally impose reforms on the criminal-justice system, including refusing to prosecute many misdemeanants. Boston D.A. Rachael Rollins, who provided the data for the study, has claimed it confirms the wisdom of her approach. So have other reformers such as Chicago-area state’s attorney Kim Foxx and San Francisco district attorney Chesa Boudin.
Charles Fain Lehman is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of City Journal.
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