For decades our approach to crime has been based on a fallacy. The notion is quite simple: Arresting and prosecuting people for minor, so-called “quality-of-life” offenses prevents major — and often violent — crimes, such as shootings and homicides. Now, many cities are backtracking on this style of enforcement in an effort to treat drug use and sex work as public health issues and reduce the impacts of policing and incarceration especially in Black communities. Our recent study on Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby’s low-level policies signals the merits of this new strategy.
Aggressive order-maintenance and zero-tolerance have been core components of policing in many major cities since the 1980s. The central theme is that if we as a society “allow” people to get away with minor offenses, they will go on to commit more serious offenses. Small crimes become big crimes. Therefore, arrests for minor offenses such as open beer cans and loitering should be aggressively enforced to keep the broader community safe.
In Baltimore City, this approach has engendered anger and trauma for decades, finally manifesting in a breakdown in police relations within Black communities after the killing of Freddie Gray, from which the city has never fully recovered. A subsequent Department of Justice report was scathing in its denunciation of the Baltimore Police Department’s practices and resulted in a federal consent decree. The disproportionate focus on arresting for minor crimes has served as a vehicle for many of the unconstitutional abuses of police power, such as racially biased stop and search, that the report condemned.
In the last few years, our city has undergone a major shift in how we approach policing and prosecution. In March 2020, State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced her decision to stop prosecuting minor offenses, including drug possession and sex work. Police stopped making arrests. By the time Ms. Mosby made the policy permanent in March 2021, she had dismissed pending cases and quashed warrants associated with these offenses.
This prosecutorial change gave us the opportunity to ask a unique question as researchers: Was there evidence that individuals benefiting from the policy (i.e., whose drug and prostitution charges were dropped) went on to commit more serious offenses?
The theory of zero-tolerance policing says that if these people not picked up for their low-level offenses, there would be public safety consequences. But our preliminary research showed that the answer was almost always that they did not. Using data on arrests from the Maryland Courts Judicial Information System, we found that only 0.8% of 741 individuals whose charges were dismissed were rearrested for more serious offenses in the 14 months after the policy went into effect.
These findings are bolstered by studies elsewhere. In Boston, local prosecutor Rachael Rollins stopped prosecuting misdemeanors. Researchers found that not prosecuting these offenses led to reductions in future felony offenses by individuals arrested for misdemeanors. The study hypothesized that by stopping people from entering the criminal legal system on minor offenses, it reduced the chance that they would become involved in the system and commit a more serious offense. This is also consistent with research from the field of criminology illustrating that exposure to the criminal legal system can increase, not decrease, the risk factors for committing subsequent crime.
Yet while some may take solace in the fact that the low-level offenses do not cause more crime, others believe they are a nuisance that should be handled by the justice system. However, the reality is that when someone is arrested for drug use or sex work, they are often released pending trial and are back on the streets doing the same thing within 24 hours. This approach neither reduces signs of public disorder nor addresses the root causes of the behaviors causing concern. Research has consistently shown that arrest and detention are not associated with reduced likelihood of using drugs or selling sex thereafter and is instead associated with increased risks of related harms, including fatal overdose. The criminal legal system is simply not equipped to handle the challenges of drug use and sex work.
Instead, we should be expanding health and social services to meet the underlying needs of those no longer being routed into the criminal legal system. Ms. Mosby’s office has built partnerships with mental health, drug treatment and sex work organizations, but the city should be funding more outreach services to support locals whose health crisis needs are no longer being met with arrest and prosecution. Addressing trauma and broader health needs in the community, improving access to evidence-based treatment for substance use disorder, scaling up harm-reduction services such as syringe service programs, and implementing overdose prevention sites should all be central to the city’s evolving approach. Research is now needed on cost savings from declining to arrest, prosecute and detain people for these behaviors; such savings should be redirected to the public health system.
Our city is leaving behind an era of aggressive zero-tolerance policing and tough-on-crime prosecutions. What comes next must be an unequivocal commitment to evidence-based public health measures and the requisite financing.
Susan Sherman (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a professor in the Department of Health, Behavior and Society within at Johns Hopkins University, where Saba Rouhani (email@example.com) is a member of the research faculty.