National Report Shows Declines in Misdemeanor Enforcement, but Racial Disparities Persist

Posted October 27, 2020, 3:24PM
Like others across the nation, the Durham Police Department has issued fewer misdemeanor warrants in recent years.

Misdemeanor crimes in Durham are examined in a new report by the Data Collaborative for Justice at John Jay College’s Research Network on Misdemeanor Justice that shows downward trends in misdemeanor arrests but ongoing disparities in the percentage of Black people arrested.

“Misdemeanor Enforcement Trends Across the United States” examines enforcement of low-level crimes in seven jurisdictions across the U.S., including Durham, N.C.. 

The study was conducted by North Carolina Central University's Juvenile Justice Institute and the Department of Criminal Justice, in collaboration with several other universities.  This project was supported by the Arnold Ventures philanthropy fund.

The report shows that over a 10-year period:

  • Significant increases in misdemeanor arrests occurred, followed by a general decline in misdemeanor enforcement; 


  • Individuals who were young, Black and/or male were arrested at the highest rates;


  • Police enforcement shifted to fewer discretionary, drug-related charges, adding more charges likely to involve a victim or complainant.

“The general decline in misdemeanor enforcement is great news,” said Lorraine C. Taylor, Ph.D., executive director of the Juvenile Justice Institute at NCCU, which worked with the Research Network in compiling the report. “These low level offenses represent up to 80% of all criminal cases, so declining numbers bring about a significant cost savings in terms of budgets and in impacts on individual lives, families, and communities.”

But the data on racial disparities remains concerning, Taylor said.

“The overrepresentation of Blacks in the arrest data shows that there is still work to be done to understand and eliminate this inequity,” she added. “We know that misdemeanor arrests can have a long-term impact on the lives of defendants, who may be incarcerated and wind up with a permanent criminal record that can derail their lives. Because Blacks continue to be overrepresented in this system, we must continue to fight against this injustice through our research and policy decisions.”

Taylor said the timing of this data is fortunate because it comes at a time when national attention is on racial injustice.

“We all see the protests and public displays of outrage, yet our work here at NCCU provides another lens. Our data analyses show that we do indeed still have a long way to go, but with this tool we can actually identify the problems and make policy decisions accordingly. In addition, it can help communities assess whether disparities in enforcement by race, age, gender, or neighborhood require reforms to ensure that the criminal legal process is not reinforcing or exacerbating inequities in society.”

Durham Chief of Police Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis said that analyzing misdemeanor trends can help both communities and policing agencies identify concerns.
“As the police chief of the city Durham, NC, I am committed to our community’s safety and our community’s trust in its police department,” Davis said. “Working with outside researchers through the Research Network has helped us better understand and address the concerns of our community to prevent racial disparities in policing. This work has made us ever more committed to engaging with the people of Durham to bring about a safe, trusting, and healthy community.”
This new report is the culmination of nearly five years of research by DCJ’s Research Network, which seeks to gather insights into how police interact with communities around misdemeanors through researcher-practitioner partnerships. The report analyzes cross-jurisdictional trends in lower-level enforcement in seven regions across the U.S. that make up the Research Network, including Durham, N.C.; Los Angeles, Calif.; Louisville, Ken.; New York City, N.Y.; Prince George’s County; Md.; Seattle, Wash.; and St. Louis, Mo.

The full report as well as a related data tool are available on the Data Collaborative for Justice’s website.

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