By Milton J. Valencia . . . The progressive movement to divert nonviolent offenders to treatment rather than charging them with a crime has faced a drumbeat of criticism over the years focused on the same central theme: Criminals who don’t pay for their offenses are more likely to commit a crime again.
Now, a first-of-its-kind independent research study conducted in Suffolk County has undercut this opposition. The study, which analyzed nearly two decades of data, found that not prosecuting low-level crimes was more successful in directing nonviolent offenders away from the criminal justice system.
“Keeping these individuals out of the criminal justice system seems to have an effect; it seems to stop the path of criminal activity from escalating, and that’s the takeaway from this study,” said Anna Harvey, a professor at New York University, who partnered with colleagues from Rutgers University and Texas A&M University to conduct the review, which was published Monday by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
The report is among the first to support, with data, the progressive criminal justice movement away from tough-on-crime tactics and toward policies that divert defendants accused of certain low-level crimes to social service programs, rather than the criminal justice system. The belief is that the diversion prevents a cycle of incarceration and repeat offenses.
Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins won a surprise victory in 2018 touting these types of policies, overcoming more conservative opponents who vowed to be tougher on crime. Since taking office in 2019, Rollins has had to fend off criticism that her effort to effectively decriminalize 15 categories of nonviolent low-level crimes such as shoplifting and driving offenses is too easy on criminals; her opponents argue that letting criminals go without punishment encourages them to commit more crimes.