The report on misdemeanor arrests — which represent the vast majority of criminal law enforcement interactions in the U.S. — draws on data collected from agencies between the early 2000s and the late 2010s in New York, Louisville, Los Angeles, Seattle, Durham, N.C., St. Louis and the D.C. suburb of Prince George’s.
The key findings, including that Black people were arrested for misdemeanors at the highest rate of any racial group, come as government leaders and law enforcement officials nationwide face mounting pressure to reform criminal justice and policing.
“Police have a great deal of discretion to enforce these lower-level crimes, and how police use that discretion can really impact how communities interact with the police,” Data Collaborative policy director Erica Bond said.
The report’s authors wrote that researchers often focus on felony arrests because they are seen as more serious or dangerous but an estimated 75 to 80 percent of criminal cases each year are based on misdemeanor offenses.
Understanding who is arrested, why they’re arrested and how many people are arrested in a given year is imperative for policymakers because, the authors wrote, misdemeanors can lead to “significant jail time and a permanent criminal record — both of which have a ripple effect on individuals’ lives and their communities.” University researchers in about 40 jurisdictions applied to participate in the study.
Several major findings were true for all seven jurisdictions, despite their differences in size, region and demographics. All locations saw a significant rise, then decline, in misdemeanor arrests during the study period, and most spikes happened between 2008 and 2012. All saw a shift in the type of misdemeanor arrests by law enforcement, with fewer overall discretionary drug-related charges and more charges with a direct victim or complainant. And all produced data showing that people who were young, male or Black were most likely to be arrested for misdemeanors.
The study noted that the overall decrease in misdemeanor arrests “did not appear to influence” overall crime rates — and in particular, the violent crime rate — in most jurisdictions. This aligns with research that shows no “direct relationship between misdemeanor enforcement and the prevention of more serious crime.”
In Prince George’s, researchers at the University of Maryland analyzed county police department data from 2006 to 2018 — a period that spanned the tenures of four police chiefs, two state’s attorneys and two county executives.
Across the study period, the racial disparities in misdemeanor enforcement increased in the majority-Black county, the data shows. For every White person arrested in 2006, 2.2 Black people were arrested, according to the study. By 2018, that disparity had increased to 3.4 Black people for every one White person. New York and Los Angeles experienced similar upticks.
The authors say in the study that this disproportionate rate does not mean that Black people are more likely to commit more crimes than other racial or ethnic groups, but that research shows communities of color have been historically over-policed, are disadvantaged by the racial bias of individual officers, and have been underserved by government policies and community resources.
“What this study helps to do is to quantify that experience,” Bond said.
Misdemeanor arrests fell overall in Prince George’s by 27 percent from 2006 to 2018, data shows. But arrests steadily increased and then peaked in 2012 before eventually declining. It’s unclear why the county experienced a peak in 2012 — or why the other jurisdictions also saw overall spikes in arrests during the same time period.
The study found that across jurisdictions, enforcement of discretionary, drug-related charges decreased. However in Prince George’s, the share of overall misdemeanor arrests for drug-related crimes went up three percentage points during the course of the study, and spiked from 17 percent in 2006 to 26 percent in 2012, the data shows.
“These variations serve as reminders that local contexts, practices, policies, and priorities play important roles in law enforcement,” the study’s authors wrote. “As jurisdictions take up reforms, they may be starting from very different places.”
Prince George’s was among the study sites where law enforcement provided data for arrests of 16- and 17-year-olds, which showed teenagers were arrested at a much higher rate than any other age group between 2006 and about 2011. The number of teen arrests then began to decline, and by 2018 it had become the age group with the second-fewest arrests, just above those over age 35.
James Lynch, the research site lead for Prince George’s and a professor at U-Md., said that in his conversations, county leaders have aligned that decrease with a commitment to youth diversion programs.
“That is a real puzzle that we have to unpack,” he said.
Officials at the Prince George’s police department and the State’s Attorney’s Office were not able to determine what county or state-level policies may have influenced the trends, but a police spokeswoman said there are many factors that shape how law enforcement shifts with the needs of the community.
“As time goes on our focus changes, our mission changes, and we react to what we see going on in the streets,” said Julie Wright, the director of the department’s media relations division.
The Data Collaborative researchers did not study the reasons behind the data trends but said in the report that this analysis should serve as a starting point for more detailed conversations about how policies and enforcement strategies over time ultimately affect arrest rates — and people’s lives.
Preeti Chauhan, an associate professor at John Jay College and the principal investigator on the report, said data analysis like this is most effective when law enforcement agencies and elected officials are willing to engage. Former Prince George’s police chiefs Mark Magaw and Hank Stawinski endorsed the project, according to the researchers, and the department provided all requested data.
“There’s a lot that we would like to look at in terms of trends,” Bond said. “Local police chiefs should be wanting to do the same.”