Let’s Stop Arresting People

August 16th 2015

Russell Matson

All across this country, police arrest people and charge them with crimes every day in situations where it absolutely didn’t need to happen.

So here is my modest proposal. Let’s just stop arresting people.

If there is an actual, legitimate threat to public safety, sure, go ahead and arrest that person. And there is some limited deterrence value in not letting people steal things without consequences.

But there are vast numbers of people who are charged with crimes for dumb things, yet they will almost certainly never commit a crime again. There is absolutely no societal benefit to putting them through the criminal justice system.

We can substantially turn down the dial on discretionary arrests. Police can and should use their discretion and simply not arrest people when it’s not absolutely necessary.

And the consequences of fewer arrests won’t be chaos and anarchy. We saw this in New York City during the work slowdown when the police union was at war with Mayor Bill de Blasio in the wake of the killing of two police officers in Brooklyn shortly after the non-indictment of Eric Garner.

Arrest rates dropped by 56 percent and summonses by 92 percent, and there was no noticeable negative impact on communities. The police department accidentally made the argument that they’d been over-policing all along.

The Consequences of Too Many Arrests

We’ve all seen the many high-profile cases like Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, and Sandra Bland—people who ended up dead after unnecessary arrests. And we don’t have any idea how many more countless incidents like this have happened in recent years because they weren’t captured on video.

But there are many other ways that lives are ruined and disrupted by unnecessary and trivial encounters with the criminal justice system.

Here's an example of a petty arrest. In Billerica, Massachusetts, Town Selectman George Simolaris, a 57-year old painter, was charged with misdemeanor defacing of public property when he painted some crosswalks himself after the town was slow to do so. Estimates to remove the paint were about $4,200. Mr. Simolaris is not a public safety threat nor likely to go on a criminal painting rampage. He admitted his mistake and was willing to pay for the damage. Why charge him?

And that's just one story of dumb and trivial criminal charges that actually made the news. Imagine all the people charged with petty and trumped-up crimes that we never hear about.

What Should We Do?

  • End Stop and Frisk, which perpetuates harassment of citizens and increases petty citations and arrests with no measurable public safety benefit.

  • Let’s decriminalize minor offenses, such as open alcohol container laws and public urination laws, so arrests aren’t an option.

  • President Obama's Task Force on 21st Century Policing recommends ending ticket quotas, improving community policing efforts, and equipping police officers with body cameras. A body camera didn’t change the outcome of the Sam Dubose case, but it shined a light on poor police tactics.

It will take an enormous shift in policies and priorities to reduce arrests, but change is possible. Reforms to the punitive and predatory municipal court system in Ferguson, Missouri, for example, have made it less likely that a petty citation leads to a criminal warrant.

Imagine if we required police to justify why an arrest was necessary and unavoidable.

More Second Chances

Because reducing police arrests will take big procedural and cultural changes, we also need to reduce criminal charges after the police get involved.

  • Massachusetts has Show Cause Hearings for misdemeanor citations to determine if a criminal charge should be filed. The great thing about these hearings is that the clerks have enormous discretion to find non-criminal penalties or even decide to drop the case entirely.

  • Many other state courts have procedures to avoid and drop charges after six months, such as adjournment in contemplation of dismissal (ACD), pretrial probation, diversion programs, and deferred prosecutions.

Each time we avoid a pushing a petty criminal charge through the system, we give a citizen a second chance to avoid an expensive, disruptive, and sometimes life-changing legal problem.