Opinion: ‘Felony arrest’ data shouldn’t determine criminal justice policy (2023)

In a world that followed facts and reason, not politics and fear, all policymakers – Democrat and Republican alike – would be standing proudly behind bail reform. In New York, as well as Houston and Los Angeles, years of evidence prove unequivocally that bail reform has worked. Along with other modest, reasoned steps to limit the number of people incarcerated pretrial, bail reform has spared hundreds of thousands of people charged with the lowest-level crimes (most misdemeanors and some non-violent felonies) from jail and saved hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars, all while reducing the likelihood of rearrest.

If our policymakers truly cared about health and safety, they would be discussing how to expand policies like bail reform. Instead, over the last few months in New York, “bail reform” once again dominated discourse for all the worst, most misleading reasons. Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul held the state budget hostage for weeks in order to try to pressure state Democrats into expanding the already vast power of judges to set unaffordable bail in cases that bail reform doesn’t even touch: all “violent” felonies, a large number of non-violent felonies, and an increasing number of misdemeanors as well. Despite having supermajorities in both the state Senate and Assembly, Democrats unfortunately caved, ignoring facts as well as political wisdom to limit bail reform for the third time in less than four years.

The idea that New York judges needed more power to set bail was, of course, a farce.

Judges already routinely abuse their broad power to set bail. Some judges set bail in nearly 8 out of 10 eligible cases. The result of this already-broad judicial power: nearly 6,000 people suffering on Rikers Island. Over 90 percent of them are Black or brown, and the vast majority are jailed pretrial on unaffordable bail.

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In order to win her case to needlessly enhance pretrial incarceration for Black, brown and poor New Yorkers, Hochul aligned herself with the GOP against her own party to scare New Yorkers with terms like “felony arrests” and “serious crimes.”

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It worked. It usually does. The public narrative and policy discussion around bail reform, crime and safety tend to center police arrest data and weaponize terms like "felony arrests" and “serious crimes” to strike fear into the hearts of many. Police, prosecutors and politicians always find a way to fearmonger about felony arrest numbers (whether they’re increasing, decreasing, or just remaining steady) to justify measures that will put more people in jails and prisons for longer.

Little attention, however, has been paid to what actually happens in these felony cases after arrest. Instead, we are encouraged to believe that these incidents are as serious and scary as the dominant narrative makes them out to be. We are led to assume that all people arrested for those crimes are actually guilty and will inevitably be convicted and sentenced to serious prison time.

Leaders like Hochul take advantage of these assumptions to defend harmful, fact-free policy decisions. But none of these assumptions are true.

So, what actually happens to most “felony arrests?”

Felony arrests aren’t felony convictions

As a public defender in Brooklyn for nearly 10 years, I saw how felony arrests were routinely overcharged by police and prosecutors, leading in many cases to dismissals and pleas to lesser charges or simple infractions. I also saw how our largest-in-the-nation police department made massive numbers of arrests, inevitably sweeping up countless people who have done nothing wrong at all. So I wasn’t surprised when I turned to data from the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services and found that in 2021, the most recent year for which data is available, 86% of all felony arrests in the state were ultimately dismissed. In New York City, often demonized in the news despite being the fifth-safest big city in the country, the rate of felony dismissals was even higher: 93%.

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Here is how that is possible.

I focused on felony arrests because they are often characterized as the “serious” crimes that are used to undermine reform and other alternatives to state control. Of the 107,796 New York cases that began as felony arrests, more than half (52,372) were dismissed, including acquittals for the few that went to trial.

Of the remaining 50,435 felony charges that ended in "convictions" in 2021, 72% were resolved as low-level misdemeanors or non-criminal infractions, with all initial felony charges dismissed. This squares with what defenders know: police and prosecutors routinely overcharge lower-level offenses as felonies to create bargaining power. The incentives for people charged for felonies are clear: If you plead guilty to a misdemeanor or less, you’ll go home from jail and also avoid the scarlet letter of a felony conviction on your record. If you keep fighting your case, you’ll stay in jail and face the threat of scary and harsh mandatory minimum sentences. The result is that prosecutors charge people with felonies even though they know that they don’t have enough evidence to get a felony conviction, just to coerce people into pleading guilty to a lower-level charge rather than continuing to fight their case.

When we combine all those felonies that ended in misdemeanor convictions or less with all the felony charges that ended in outright dismissals or acquittals, the number is even more remarkable: nearly 88,000, or 82%, of arrests originally charged as felonies in New York did not lead to felony convictions in 2021. The same dataset shows that just 6.7% of all felony charges in New York state in 2021 resulted in upstate prison time.

The same patterns are even more pronounced in New York City, the perennial national punching bag for disingenuous politicians and media outlets. Of the 62,440 arrests in the city that were charged as "felonies," nearly 70% were dismissed, including acquittals, with the vast majority of dismissals by prosecutors. Of the remaining 19,717 felony charges that ended in "convictions" in 2021, 80% resolved as low-level misdemeanors or infractions with all felonies dismissed.

Taken together, 93% of arrests that began as felonies in New York City and resolved in 2021 did not end in felony convictions. And 57% of all New York City felony arrests that ended in conviction in 2021 included no additional incarceration as part of the sentence at all.

Misleading arrest data

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Police, prosecutors and their allies often use felony arrest data to argue for more pretrial detention and other tough-on-crime policies. But the same data shows that judges would be jailing people pretrial – upending and endangering their lives in the process – who are extremely unlikely to be convicted of a felony and even less likely to be sentenced to prison, undermining the necessity of incarceration in the first place.

The fight over bail reform, then, is really about whether to give judges – already predisposed to over-incarceration – even more power to jail people at arraignments, a minutes-long hearing when almost nothing is known about a case, when the data show people are almost never sentenced to incarceration after the facts become more clear.

Police and tough-on-crime politicians warn about the specter of “serious crimes” to scare New Yorkers into supporting carceral policies. But consider the story that New York’s arrest data actually tells us. The vast majority of felonies charged in New York are not “serious” enough to prosecute as such. We know this because prosecutors dismiss over five out of every six of these cases. As any public defender could tell you, what a person is charged with often has very little to do with the underlying facts in a case and how it ultimately resolves.

Any conversation about safety and pretrial detention should begin with the ongoing humanitarian crisis on Rikers Island and other pretrial detention complexes, and the families of loved ones who have died because of pretrial caging. It should include real solutions that keep our communities safe, like well-funded schools, living wage jobs, and access to affordable housing and health care; the things that actually make communities healthy and safe.

The Democratic supermajorities in the Legislature may have caved on bail, but there’s still time for them to advance justice on other fronts before this year’s legislative session ends by passing the Clean Slate Act, Challenging Wrongful Convictions Act, – four bills with majority support that await action by legislative leaders to allow a floor vote.

Fearmongering does not belong in the conversation.


Why data matters in criminal justice? ›

Crime data, if collected properly, can help law enforcement agencies determine any correlations that affect criminal activity. Additionally, agencies can use collected data to identify areas where, when and what types of crimes are most likely to occur.

Why aren t any records or indexes of crime very reliable measures of the true amount of crime? ›

Why aren't any records or indexes of crime reliable measures of the true amount of crime? Some behavior is labeled crime by one observer and not another and vice versa. Both situations contribute to the inaccuracy of statistics.

Why is the phrase criminal justice system misleading quizlet? ›

The term criminal justice system is somewhat misleading because it implies that law enforcement agencies, courts, and correctional facilities constitute one large, integrated system when, in reality, the criminal justice system is made up of many bureaucracies that have considerable discretion in how decisions are made ...

What is one possible problem with the statistics in the NCVS? ›

What is one possible problem with the statistics in the NCVS? People may not accurately report the crime that they have experienced.

Why is data justice important? ›

Data justice has emerged as a key framework for engaging with the intersection of datafication and society in a way that privileges an explicit concern with social justice.

Why is data important in law? ›

Determining case type profitability

Your law firm's individual data can help you determine which cases yield the biggest profits and which cases cost more than they bring in.

Why is it difficult to measure crime accurately? ›

First of all, police can not discover all crimes, nor not all crimes can be discovered by public to be reported. They usually occur away from pol gaze. Therefore, they rely on reporting from public. Reporting cultrue also constantly change, meaning that not all crimes are always brought to attention of police.

Why is accurate crime data important? ›

Without statistics, it would be impossible to create appropriate law enforcement budgets. Beyond just budgets, crime statistics are important in broader law enforcement resource allocation. For example, the data can be used to help determine which programs or communities will receive criminal justice grants.

What is the problem with measuring crime? ›

A major challenge in measuring crime is that not all crimes are reported. It is common for rape victims to avoid reporting what happened to them. Criminals are also usually reluctant to report crimes that happen to them. Petty and property crimes are also underreported.

What is the biggest problem with the criminal justice system? ›

Currently, the criminal justice system's three largest issues are police retention and recruitment, lack of resource parity between prosecution and public defenders, and its public perception. Currently, police recruitment and retention is arguably the largest problem facing the criminal justice system.

What makes the criminal justice system corrupt? ›

In a corrupt judicial system, money and influence may decide which cases are prioritised or dismissed. Perpetrators may get away unpunished while victims are left with no answer and no justice.

What is the most accurate description of the criminal justice system? ›

The criminal justice system is the network of government and private agencies intended to manage accused and convicted criminals. The criminal justice system is comprised of multiple interrelated pillars, consisting of academia, law enforcement, forensic services, the judiciary, and corrections.

Which crime does the NCVS not collect data? ›

The UCR includes, but the NCVS excludes, homicide, arson, commercial crimes, and crimes against children under age 12. The UCR captures crimes reported to law enforcement but collects only arrest data for simple assault and sex offenses other than forcible rape.

What does the NCVS not measure? ›

The crimes recorded are rape, robbery, assault, personal theft, household theft, burglary, and motor vehicle theft; the NCVS does not measure murder rates because the victims cannot be surveyed. The NCVS employs a national survey, so it cannot break down data by state or locality.

How does big data benefit criminal justice? ›

They provide a surveillance system that spots crimes and ensures perpetrators are brought to justice. At the same time, it enables investigators to analyze crime trends as well, which helps police to forecast when and where violent crimes will occur, and ensure that they have the resources in place to prevent them.

Why is data and evidence important? ›

Make Informed Decisions

Good data provides indisputable evidence, while anecdotal evidence, assumptions, or abstract observation might lead to wasted resources due to taking action based on an incorrect conclusion.

How important is research in criminal justice? ›

Research evidence is very important to the development of criminal justice decision-making. Through well-designed and implemented research, we can better explore the impact of policies, programs, and daily practices; we can “see if they work,” for example if they reduce crime.

Why is data important in police? ›

Every day, police agencies rely upon data to make tactical and operational decisions about how best to deploy resources and combat crime in their communities.

What are 5 reasons why data is important? ›

  • #1 For Informed Decision-Making. With real-time intelligence at their disposal, leaders can make informed decisions on the direction to take their company. ...
  • #2 For Problem-Solving. ...
  • #3 For Greater Understanding. ...
  • #4 For Improving Processes. ...
  • #5 For Understanding Behaviour. ...
  • Wrap-Up.

How big data can be valuable to criminal justice? ›

Big data can be a valuable source of insights for professionals in the behavioral science field of criminology. They can use it to access a wealth of knowledge regarding human behavior and patterns in various situations.

What is the best way to measure crime? ›

The UCR Program compiles data from monthly law enforcement reports or individual crime incident records transmitted directly to the FBI or to centralized agencies that then report to the FBI. The program thoroughly examines each report it receives for reasonableness, accuracy, and deviations that may indicate errors.

What is the most challenging issue when assessing a crime scene? ›

Loss of evidence

The biggest impediment to an investigation is the removal or loss of a piece of evidence from the scene of a crime. Due to the high movement of human traffic in a crime scene, it is likely for items to be misplaced, stolen or moved.

When did crime become a problem? ›

Crime has been recorded in the United States since its founding. Crime rates have varied over time, with a sharp rise after 1900 and reaching a broad bulging peak between the 1970s and early 1990s. After 1992, crime rates began to fall year by year and have since declined significantly.

How do you analyze crime data? ›

The five basic steps in the crime analysis process include the collection, categorization, analysis, dissemination, and evaluation of information. The reports and forms for use in each step of information-gathering and analysis are explained and illustrated.

Is accuracy of information major problem in criminal justice? ›

Accuracy of information is major problem in criminal justice. Minimax strategies are strategies designed to minimize and maximum loss that could result from a given decision outcome, and they produce very conservative or low-risk decisions.

Why is accuracy important when writing police reports? ›

The decisions and actions taken as a result of the report must be supported by accurate information contained in the report. If any information is inaccurate, the credibility and reliability of the report will likely be jeopardized.

What are the three main problems in defining crime? ›

The Crime Triangle identifies three factors that create a criminal offense. Desire of a criminal to commit a crime; Target of the criminal's desire; and the Opportunity for the crime to be committed. You can break up the Crime Triangle by not giving the criminal the Opportunity.

What are the three major problems with evidence in criminal investigations? ›

This article identifies "cognitive biases," "organizational traps," and "probability errors" that lead to failures in criminal investigations, i.e. the failure to prosecute the guilty person or the mistaken prosecution of an innocent person.

What are the two main methods of measuring crime in the US? ›

The U.S. Department of Justice administers two statistical programs to measure the magnitude, nature, and impact of crime in the nation: the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program and the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS).

How does the criminal justice system affect society? ›

The criminal justice system affects society by reducing some crime, as well as by adding corruption, and through its indirect effects such as in the media. This system directly takes some criminals out of the public through imprisonment, and it also deters some people from committing crime.

Is the criminal justice system important? ›

The criminal justice system is tasked with keeping us safe and protecting our property, which involves many moving pieces. Some of the most important organizational components that make up this massive system include law enforcement agencies, courts, and the corrections department.

Is criminal justice a social issue? ›

Criminal justice is a subset of social justice that applies the criminal justice process when principles of right and wrong, and fair and unfair are violated according to criminal law.

How can criminal justice system be improved? ›

Criminal Justice Policy Solutions
  1. Promote Community Safety through Alternatives to Incarceration. ...
  2. Create Fair and Effective Policing Practices. ...
  3. Promote Justice in Pre-Trial Services & Practices. ...
  4. Enhance Prosecutorial Integrity. ...
  5. Ensure Fair Trials and Quality Indigent Defense. ...
  6. Encourage Equitable Sentencing.

When the criminal justice system fails? ›

If the criminal justice system has failed to meet your needs, remember that you have options to pursue civil remedies, including orders of protection and restitution. You also may have options seeking justice through tribal court, both civil and criminal.

Is the US criminal justice system effective? ›

Determining whether the system is fair and effective begins with the question, “Compared with what?” Compared with historical benchmarks, the criminal justice system is probably more fair and effective than ever. Compared with public expectations, however, the system falls far short in both areas.

What is an example of a criminal justice policy? ›

Policies include issues related: to juvenile justice, drug legislation, intimate partner violence, prison overcrowding, school safety, new federal immigration laws, terrorism, and national security. Modern-day crime policies can be traced to changes in crime and delinquency in the 1960s.

What part of the criminal justice system is most important? ›

Law enforcement is the first pillar of the criminal justice system, because it is the system that individuals first encounter when they go against the law. It is also the most visible system to society, because we see law enforcement officers every day.

What is the rule of law in criminal justice? ›

Rule of law is a principle under which all persons, institutions, and entities are accountable to laws that are: Publicly promulgated. Equally enforced. Independently adjudicated.

What crimes are measured by NCVS? ›

The NCVS collects information on nonfatal personal crimes (i.e., rape or sexual assault, robbery, aggravated and simple assault, and personal larceny) and household property crimes (i.e., burglary/trespassing, motor vehicle theft, and other types of theft) both reported and not reported to the police.

What are the three ways to measure crime? ›

The three main sources of crime data include official reports from the police, surveys of victims, and self-reports from offenders.

What are the 4 primary methods of measuring crime in the US? ›

Introduction. Congress uses data from the Uniform Crime Reports (UCR), the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS),1 and the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) to inform policy decisions and develop appropriate responses to crime.

Which of the following is problem with the NCVS program? ›

Which of the following is a problem with the NCVS program? Victims may invent victimizations. The unlawful taking or attempted taking of property that is in the immediate possession of another, by force or the threat of force, is known as ________.

Why is the NCVS considered so useful for research? ›

It facilitates research into the characteristics of crime victims. Despite suffering from a variety of problems, why is the NCVS considered so useful for research? In a multiple-offense incident, only the most serious crime is counted.

What are the three sections of NCVS? ›

Key NCVS Estimates

The three key types of victimization estimates supported by the NCVS are totals, percentages, and rates.

What is one of the problems with NCVS data quizlet? ›

Problems with the NCVS: - Cannot measure "victimless" crimes or murder. Does not include crimes against commercial enterprises. Victimization data do not have to meet legal standards.

What type of sampling does the NCVS use? ›

The NCVS sample is a two-stage stratified sample of housing units and group quarters within 542 sample areas.

Why data matters? ›

At its very core, data tells us what we need to do next. Data exposes inefficiencies and disadvantages. It reveals truths about our habits and what we might do next.

What is data analysis in police? ›

It's a list of the people in a certain neighborhood who police think are most likely to commit crimes.

Can research benefit the criminal justice field overall if so how? ›

Research evidence is very important to the development of criminal justice decision-making. Through well-designed and implemented research, we can better explore the impact of policies, programs, and daily practices; we can “see if they work,” for example if they reduce crime.

What are the pros and cons of big data? ›

If a company uses big data to its advantage, it can be a major boon for them and help them outperform its competitors. Advantages include improved decision making, reduced costs, increased productivity and enhanced customer service. Disadvantages include cybersecurity risks, talent gaps and compliance complications.

How does big data effect us? ›

Companies use big data in their systems to improve operations, provide better customer service, create personalized marketing campaigns and take other actions that, ultimately, can increase revenue and profits.

How does data provide evidence? ›

Data can provide evidence to support claims and help you make better arguments by showing you the facts behind an idea or concept.

Does data mean evidence? ›

Evidence is a body of facts and information showing whether a hypothesis is true or untrue. Data forms the basis for evidence, so there's a lot of overlap between the two concepts. However, data is raw information with no judgment attached. Evidence is when data is used to try to prove or disprove a particular point.

How can data reduce crime? ›

Data analytics helps law enforcement officials track guns before they are used, as well as to trace weapons or bullets found at crime scenes to the manufacturer and owner of the weapon.

What is a good source of data about crime in the US? ›

The Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program generates reliable statistics for use in law enforcement. It also provides information for students of criminal justice, researchers, the media, and the public. The program has been providing crime statistics since 1930.

What are effective methods of data collection in criminal justice? ›

Data and the Justice System

For example, surveys, interviews, focus groups, or experiments are all common data collection techniques that allow criminal justice professionals or experts to form policies or practices.


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