A collaborative, long-term study found misdemeanor enforcement in St. Louis has declined 76% from 2002 to 2017.
Lee Ann Slocum is a professor at UMSL and received her Ph.D. in Criminology and Criminal Justice. She was one of the leading data collectors and researchers for the St. Louis portion of the Data Collaborative for Justice’s study, along with Beth M. Huebner, an UMSL professor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice.
Slocum noted that the most common type of misdemeanor arrest in the region was a simple assault, or an assault that does not involve a weapon or result in injury to a person.
“There's some indication that by enforcing these low-level offenses you actually can hurt safety in neighborhoods because people are less likely to trust the police and are less willing to call them and seek out their help and offer cooperation,” Slocum said. “So, there's sometimes that tradeoff between enforcement of lower level offenses and community trust and the ability of police to effectively do their job.”
Slocum said because there is a high rate of violent crime in St. Louis, the police department is driving the research agenda and they're primarily interested in how they're doing with arrests for violent crimes and serious crimes. But that doesn’t mean they’ve been resistant to this particular area of study.
“The police department has been very transparent and very generous with their data. They've met with us on a number of occasions to help us interpret the data and make sure that we're getting things right. And so I think the partnership has really been effective,” Slocum said.
The St. Louis data showed a 76% decline in misdemeanor enforcement from 2002 to 2017, with the proportion of drug arrests falling from 16% to 8%. Similarly, the arrest rate for 18-20-year-olds fell by 85% and the arrest rate for 35-65-year-olds also fell by about 75%.
Slocum noted that while the study found a greater percent decline among misdemeanor enforcement of Black men, she doesn’t think that is simply because there were more arrests of Black people, men in particular, at the beginning of the study.
“I do think some of this, it could be about place where the police are policing, perhaps, but I don't think it's just the fact that there are more arrests of black people.”
Erica Bond, Policy Director for Data Collaborative for Justice, noted that racial disparities existed in all locations at the beginning of the study and continued through the end, despite a decline in misdemeanor enforcement.
She said because those disparities are a feature of all seven criminal legal systems, policy makers and advocates need to figure out why these disparities exist.
Bond said part of the reason this study was conducted is because little is known about lower level charges and police interaction.
“And I think we've also seen a lot of the recent high-profile incidents — what starts out as a low-level arrest can escalate into something much more significant and can even result in death,” Bond said. “So, it's not always necessarily appropriate to even characterize this kind of enforcement as low level. So, the purpose of this work really was to document trends in enforcement and create more transparency, including around any racial disparities that are associated with misdemeanor enforcement.”
The key findings of the study across all locations included:
- Misdemeanor arrest rates decreased in recent years, and those declines often followed a period of significant increases in misdemeanor enforcement
- Black people, younger people and men were consistently arrested for misdemeanors at higher rates than any other group.
- Trends illustrated a move away from “more discretionary, drug-related charges and an increase in the share of charges where there is an identifiable complainant or victim.”
“I think any city that takes on and is willing to take on this research partnership … [it] is a critical first step,” said Preeti Chauhan, Associate Professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “Hopefully all of our jurisdictions and more will continue to monitor these trends in addition to other trends like the use of bench warrants and arrests for bench warrants — how these types of lower level enforcements impact jail populations and so I think I commend the city for sort of taking this this first step and the researchers at UMSL for being the independent researchers to do it.”
More information about the Data Collaborative for Justice and its findings can be found at datacollaborativeforjustice.org.