Sandra Susan SmithProfessor Sandra Susan Smith has been awarded a $400,000 grant from Arnold Ventures for a two-year project, entitled “How the Shift Toward Presumptive Nonprosecution of Misdemeanor Offenses Affects Racial Disparities in Current and Future Penal System Outcomes in Two Jurisdictions.”

In recent years, progressive prosecutors have proposed and enacted meaningful criminal legal system reforms to reduce mass incarceration and to correct other wrongs perpetrated by the penal state. The changes have been made at least in part to reduce racial disparities in penal system outcomes. Progressive prosecutors in several jurisdictions have recently changed policies or practices, informally or formally, around the prosecution of non-violent misdemeanor offenses toward diversion or outright dismissal. 

Recent research using Suffolk County, MA administrative data has found that by shifting to a presumption of nonprosecution of 15 low-level, non-violent offenses, the DA’s office increased by 15 to 20 percentage points the rates of nonprosecution for all nonviolent misdemeanor cases. More importantly, increasing rates of nonprosecution led to reductions, on the order of 56 percentage points, in new criminal complaints within one year of the current case, with no detected increase in reported crime. 

What has not yet been studied is how the recent shifts toward presumptive nonprosecution of misdemeanor offenses have affected racial disparities between Blacks and Latinos on the one hand and Whites on the other in current and future penal system outcomes.

While the shift toward nonprosecution should reasonably be expected to reduce racial gaps in penal outcomes, including prosecution and conviction for current charges and also for future criminal complaints, prosecution, and convictions, similar policy shifts have often resulted in significantly and substantially larger disparities.  Unfortunately, it is also reasonable to expect that a shift toward presumptive nonprosecution of nonviolent misdemeanor offenses will increase disparities between Blacks and Latinos on the one hand and Whites on the other.

To address this question, Smith and Post-Doctoral Research Fellow Felix Owusu and their team will analyze the estimated impact of the presumptive nonprosecution in Massachusetts’ Suffolk County and a declination to prosecute in North Carolina’s Durham County, focusing on how recent shifts in these policies and practices have affected racial disparities in current and future case outcomes.

Another key element of the research project is collaboration with community partner organizations in both Suffolk County and Durham County to receive feedback from people disproportionality impacted by policing, prosecution, and incarceration, to assist in finalizing the research plan, and to help draft the policy implications for the research briefs.

Sandra Susan Smith is the Daniel and Florence Guggenheim Professor of Criminal Justice and Faculty Director of the Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management. She is the Director of the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. She is also the Carol K. Pforzheimer Professor at the Radcliffe Institute. Her areas of interest include urban poverty and joblessness, social capital and social networks, and, more recently, the front end of criminal case processing, with a particular interest in the short- and long-term consequences of pretrial detention and diversion. In each of these areas, racial inequality and its root causes are core areas of concern.

Arnold Ventures is a philanthropy dedicated to tackling some of the most pressing problems in the United States. They invest in sustainable change, building it from the ground up based on research, deep thinking, and a strong foundation of evidence. They work in four key issue areas: Criminal Justice, Education, Health, and Public Finance.