Expert Commentary

“Community prosecution”: Chicago’s experience in reducing crime and incarceration rates

2013 study published in American Law and Economics Review on the effectiveness and operational mechanisms of community prosecution approaches.

In August 2013, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder made headlines when he asserted that new approaches were needed in prosecuting low-level drug-related crimes, with the goal of lowering incarceration rates and reducing the overcrowding of prisons, among other things.

Whatever the effectiveness of the wave of “get tough” laws of the last several decades, one result has been staggering rates of incarceration in the United States: Research has shown that since 1973 the U.S. prison population has increased more than seven-fold; a full 1% of the U.S. adult population has been behind bars. “Mandatory minimum” and “fixed sentence” laws have played a role in this increase, with considerable discretion taken out of the hands of local prosecutors and judges, even for non-violent offenses. Recent data show a slight decrease in the U.S. prison population, but nearly 1.5 million people remain incarcerated at the federal or state level in this country.

Holder’s policy proposal cuts against earlier trends toward “federalizing” many offenses. Instead, local prosecutors and communities would be encouraged to work together to set priorities and find more tailored solutions to public-safety issues. Such approaches fall under the banner “community justice” or “community prosecution.” In general they refer to efforts to more closely align enforcement efforts with community interests and concerns. Rather than being judged by the number of cases they process and the length of sentences obtained, prosecutors instead work with local groups to address residents’ concerns and seek solutions to prevent crimes. The strategy shares some features with “order maintenance” policing and also grew out of the “broken windows” strategy of crime control.

Well before Holder’s call to action, a number of U.S. municipalities and regions experimented with more closely connecting prosecution efforts with citizens’ concerns. As detailed in the 1998 book Community Justice: An Emerging Field, the city of Portland, Oregon, was an early proponent of the approach, starting in 1990. Holder himself applied similar strategies in Washington, D.C., in the 1990s when he was in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and the issue came up during his 2009 confirmation hearings. It has also been implemented in cities such as Baltimore, which reorganized its prosecutors in geographic zones last year, as well as rural areas such as South Dakota’s Indian reservations.

Despite a surge of interest in community prosecution practices, the question of their effectiveness remains open. To better understand this issue, Thomas J. Miles of the University of Chicago analyzed 15 years of data over a period during which the city alternately did and didn’t apply community-prosecution strategies in certain neighborhoods. “This sequence of two ‘off/on’ policy episodes permits plausible identification of the strategy’s impact,” Miles writes, as it created a kind of natural experiment in which potentially confounding variables were filtered out.

The resulting study, Does the ‘Community Prosecution’ Strategy Reduce Crime? A Test of Chicago’s Experience,” was published in American Law and Economics Review in August 2013. Its findings include:

  • When community prosecution approaches were in force, the largest decline was in violent crimes such as murder, rape and aggravated assaults. “Perhaps the most impressive is the statistically significant decline of nearly 8% in aggravated assault, the offense that, in most years, constitutes more than half of all violent crimes.”
  • Property and quality-of-life crimes also dropped, but the declines were smaller and not statistically significant. This is a contradiction of the “broken windows” concept, which theorizes that quality-of-life crimes should decline first, leading to subsequent reductions in more serious offenses.
  • The decreases in violent crimes and those against property were immediate and stable, also a contradiction of the “broken windows” theory: “Within the first year of introducing the strategy, the point estimates for violent and property crime are each about −0.04 [a coefficient], where they remain for the next four or five years.” At the same time, minor crimes were little affected.
  • Looking at the implied financial value of reductions in violent and property crime — for example, a murder was estimated to impose a societal burden of approximately $8.9 million — the study found that community prosecution strategies provided net benefits. “Although this is a ballpark calculation, the benefits appear to exceed the costs by several multiples.”

“The diversity of practices under the rubric of community prosecution makes generalization difficult, but the estimates from Chicago show that the strategy has the potential to produce cost-justified reductions in crime,” Miles writes. At the same time, “it leaves out important potential benefits, such as improvements in residents’ perceptions of public safety, and potential costs, such as longer periods of incarceration for specific neighborhood offenders.”

Tags: crime, sex crimes, prisons, law

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