Fewer arrests could reduce crime, local law professor says

WASHINGTON — One way to tackle crime might involve making fewer arrests.

“Arrests are a tool, they’re not actually the goal,” said University of Virginia law professor Rachel Harmon, who’s paper, “Why Arrest?” was recently published in the the Michigan Law Review.

She said the goal is not a count of how many people get locked up every year. “The goal is public safety and justice.”

The idea, she says, is that issuing citations and summonses for minor offenses, instead of making arrests in those cases, will reduce law enforcement costs, improve crime deterrence because more officers would be out on patrol, and help keep people from being trapped in the criminal justice system.

Harmon, who also is a former U.S. Department of Justice attorney, said the justice system convicts and sentences people because they are guilty of a crime. The arrest process is designed to get alleged criminals to court or to stop them from doing something, she said.

But these arrests— especially for people who end up being acquitted or having charges against them dropped — can permanently damage people’s lives.

“They lose their income, get a criminal record, they are charged arrest fees and booking fees — that’s true even if they are not convicted and you have to compare that to people who self-surrender, who don’t necessarily face those kinds of costs,” Harmon said.

Harmon recommended using citations and summonses more often for lesser crimes.

“One of the ways a community can go about it, at least to start, is to do it for misdemeanors,” she said. “If someone commits low-level vandalism or reckless driving, often, now, we conduct an arrest, at least in some states, where we might otherwise issue a summons. But, potentially, if we think somebody will show up and won’t commit another crime in the interim, even more serious crimes could be subject to a citation or a summons instead of an arrest.”

It would not necessarily mean police would be more relaxed in its enforcement of laws, but Harmon said it would be a more efficient use of resources.

“The costs to the community, in terms of officer time and transportation and jail costs, all of that can sometimes undermine public safety because police aren’t on the street deterring other people from committing crimes,” Harmon said.

An example she used was a change of policy on New York subways. Police in New York City would arrest people who put up their feet in the subway. But now, they will be reducing the number of arrests they make for that offense and for people caught with open containers of alcohol unless there is a clear public safety reason to engage and arrest someone.

Harmon said she wondered why anyone should ever be arrested if there wasn’t a clear public safety reason to do so. A summons to appear in court may be enough without the cost arresting, transporting, processing and holding an alleged criminal.

The Harmon said this also could help with mass incarcerations.

“What I’d like to do is reduce the costs of the system on the front end [of the criminal justice system], which will have an impact on things like mass incarceration, since many of the people who are incarcerated in this country are in city jails for short periods of time,” Harmon said. “If you are arrested, you are more likely to be detained prior to your trial, which means you are less able to help your lawyer, more likely to be convicted and receive a higher sentence. Just not arresting a person, even if you decide they are worth prosecuting, can actually improve outcomes.”

Improving officer safety

Harmon also argues in her paper that reducing the number of arrests would also decrease the number of incidents of police violence against citizens, many of which have gotten national attention.

She said that arrests often put police officers in a dangerous situation as they go in to make these arrests.

“Arrests are risky. They are risky for the person arrested, but equally and importantly — if not more importantly — they are risky for the officers who conduct them,” Harmon said. “Arrests require officers to lay hands on bodies, and some people, we know, will resist. It’s predictable [that] they’ll do so and that puts officers in danger.”

What happens is that the officer who is trying to ensure the arrest will use force to achieve that end, which they are permitted to do.

But, Harmon argues that if an arrest is deemed unnecessary, like a situation involving an open container of alcohol, some of that violence could be avoided by issuing a summons or a citation instead of trying to take that person into custody.

Departments often rely on the judgment of their officers to determine if an arrest is necessary. But Harmon said departments aren’t providing enough evidence to their officers to show when an arrest is needed or not.

She said a push away from arrests in relatively minor situations, or at least times when public safety is not a threat, would help make it easier for patrol officers to issue a summons and would improve their own safety, the safety of citizens, and, ultimately, would improve relations between police and the populace.

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