RACHAEL ROLLINS made headlines during her 2018 run for Suffolk County district attorney when she said, if elected, the office would not prosecute those charged with a set of 15 lower-level misdemeanor offenses and focus its energy on more serious crimes. Rollins said the criminal justice system spends too much time on cases that end up pulling minor offenders into the system, tripping them up with endless court dates that make holding a job difficult, assessing fines and fees that they have trouble paying. Contrary to the idea of prosecution as a deterrent, she and other reform advocates say pursuing these cases often becomes a recipe for recidivism.
A study released a week ago by a research team led by Anna Harvey, director of the Public Safety Lab at New York University, dug into more than 15 years of data in Suffolk County and concluded that Rollins was right. Defendants not prosecuted for lower-level nonviolent misdemeanors faced 65 percent fewer misdemeanor arrests over the next two years and 75 percent fewer felony arrests than those who were prosecuted for similar charges.
What’s more, Harvey said this week on The Codcast, the biggest effects were seen among first-time defendants. “So the beneficial effects for defendants of not being prosecuted seemed to be the largest for people who hadn’t already built up a record in the criminal justice system,” she said.
Rollins prominently promoted a non-prosecution approach to lower-level offenses that had, in fact, already been the practice in about a third of cases under her predecessor, Dan Conley. She increased the share of these cases not prosecuted by 15 to 20 percent, and the research study showed similar effects, with these added defendants not facing new charges at much lower rate than defendants with comparable cases who faced prosecution.
Rollins, the first black woman to be elected district attorney in the state, said she had no reservations about giving Harvey and her colleagues access to data to conduct the analysis.
“I think it’s really important that when we propose alternatives or new things, that we are willing to look and see whether they work,” Rollins said on The Codcast. “I’ve found that there are people that love speaking about the good old days, but don’t have any data to support the good old days. I come from a community where we have not been successful or reaped the benefits of privilege and opportunity and wealth, like many people do in the criminal legal system. So we were going to look at things differently, and I think I had to be open to seeing whether I was right or wrong and adapting appropriately.”
Rollins said many of those facing charges for shoplifting, larceny, or one of the other charges on her list of 15 are dealing with mental health issues, substance use disorder, a housing crisis, or other problems that the criminal legal system does a poor job addressing. Looking for alternatives to prosecution, rather than filling district courts with these cases, she said can be “more fiscally responsible and smarter on crime.”
Contrary to what she seemed to initially suggest, Rollins has not implemented a wholesale policy of waiving prosecution of lower-level misdemeanors, an idea some public safety leaders and other prosecutors had sounded alarms over.
She has increased the share of cases not prosecuted, but more than 40 percent of the cases on her list still move forward in the courts. Rollins said her goal has been to “flip” the presumption and ask frontline prosecutors to consider in each case whether moving forward with charges is the best approach.
“I think doing it now with my comms team, I might’ve worded that a little different,” she said of her campaign declaration.
Has she heard from any critics of her policy since the study came out that seems to support its basic premise?
“I guess my phone not ringing is them calling,” Rollins said. She vowed to continue “to try to keep Suffolk County as safe as possible and to have conversations with people that are willing to think creatively about being smart on crime, as opposed to saying, you know, in 1871, when I first became DA, this is the way we did it, and we’re going to keep doing it that way… We’re happy with the data and we are not going to shy away from the data, but the most important thing is, had the data shown something different, had they shown, let’s say, a massive spike or increase in recidivist behavior if we don’t prosecute, we would be adapting right now.”