Contrary to what fearmongers would have you believe, the Coronavirus has shown that crime doesn’t rise when jail and prison populations go down. This was well known even before COVID-19 caused cities to rethink their criminal justice policies.
The current COVID-19 crisis provides a real-time blueprint on how to vastly streamline our criminal justice system. Removing misdemeanor and traffic violations from the criminal code would reduce the number of arrests, jail bookings and court filings by at least 50%. Expediting the disposition of criminal charges for those jailed will reduce the jail and prison populations. And we now know that crime rates will be reduced as we shrink the $300 billion criminal justice system footprint.
The press has focused on a few isolated surges in shootings but in fact, a new study by Thomas Abt and Richard Rosenfeld shows that American homicide rates declined dramatically in April and May based on data from 64 U.S. cities: Homicide rates declined by 21.5 percent in April and 9.9 percent in May compared with the previous three-year average for those months. We’ve also seen abrupt drops in theft and burglaries since the Coronavirus took hold, and that’s against a backdrop of crime rates already dropping by over 50% since 1995.
The crime drop has also produced an arrest drop, and that’s been compounded as law enforcement has decided not to pay as much attention to misdemeanor crimes. Those arrests have dropped dramatically, producing reduced jail bookings and fewer people in jail.
As we talk about reducing the footprint and cost of police agencies (over $140 billion a year), the number one thing for us to learn is that we don’t need to physically arrest people for a misdemeanor crime. Instead, police should give them a field citation, with the exception of domestic violence and DUI charges. And police shouldn’t be doing routine traffic stops for the sole purpose of raising money for more policing. As an alternative, we should maximize use of cameras, and develop a corps of traffic officers who aren’t armed with guns but with tablets. If they catch you speeding, they take a picture of your license plate, and then send you the picture and a bill. That’s all.
The big challenge we’re now facing is people’s court appearances being delayed because the criminal courts have been shut down, or are working at a slower pace. Courts need to expedite the processing of cases for those folks who are still in jail. Defenders and prosecutors will have to change their old business practices of delaying sentencing until they get a deal they like. In particular, needless and lengthy court continuances need to be eliminated.
Courts may also need to declare a one-time amnesty for those who fail to appear over coming months on misdemeanor and traffic citations issued during the Coronavirus crisis. Otherwise, there’ll be a sizable backup of failure-to-appear warrants which will clog the courts, increase jail bookings, and do nothing to improve public safety.
—Dr. Austin has over twenty-five years of experience in correctional planning and research. He is the former director of the Institute on Crime, Justice and Corrections at George Washington University in Washington, DC.