Summary

The Decriminalization and Policing Working Group of the Roundtable on Racial Disparities in Massachusetts Criminal Courts has released a new policy brief, Reducing Racial Disparities through Decriminalization in Massachusetts: What Seems to Work and What Makes Matters Worse .

Racial disparities persist in the criminal legal system, in part driven by over-criminalization and over-policing practices of primarily low-level misdemeanor offenses. Because mass misdemeanor criminalization is one major driver of racial disparities in arrests, prosecutions, and convictions, decriminalizing many such offenses should result in reductions in racial disparities. It is unclear, however, that this is so. As of February 2020, for instance, 25 states and D.C. have passed laws decriminalizing possession of marijuana, and 11 states have legalized its recreational use. However, reductions in racial disparities have not always followed cities’ and states’ decriminalization efforts. 

In this new policy brief, the Decriminalization and Policing Working Group looks at four approaches to decriminalization and why some of these approaches might not reduce racial disparities. The policy brief then highlights some promising paths forward for decriminalization that also lead to reductions in racial disparities and how more and better data is needed to enable policymakers to evaluate these policy interventions.