Diversion, Non-prosecution, and Public Safety in Suffolk County, MA

The Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office (SCDAO) has taken unprecedented steps to limit their use of criminal sanctions for individuals charged with non-violent offenses in recent years, including identifying several common non-violent offenses for increased diversion and declination. These changes reflect mounting evidence that relying on policing, criminal adjudication, and incarceration to address non-violent conduct is costly, exacerbates racial disparities, and is often ineffective at improving public safety. Others are concerned, however, that increasing leniency for low level offenses will embolden people who commit crimes and lead to more serious misconduct. These policy changes provide an ideal opportunity to explore the impacts of limiting criminal sanctions for non-violent offenses. Towards that end, we will complete a quantitative analysis of the impact of the SCDAO’s policy changes on defendants’ future criminal legal system involvement, racial and ethnic disparities in sentencing, and public safety more broadly. This analysis will leverage administrative data from the SCDAO’s internal case management database, the Massachusetts Trial Court, the Department of Criminal Justice Information Services. These data sources will allow us to identify cases that were impacted by the policy changes described above, measure the extent to which defendants from these cases come back into contact with the criminal legal system, and compare their outcomes to similar defendants whose cases were not affected by these policies.

Researcher: Felix Owusu