Why Do Misdemeanor Arrests Matter?
75% to 80% each year (Natapoff, 2018; Stevenson & Mayson, 2018). Although misdemeanor arrests are
considered to be less serious than felony offenses (e.g., homicide, grand larceny), they can still result in
significant jail time and a permanent criminal record – both of which have been shown to negatively impact
individuals’ lives (Kohler-Hausmann, 2018; Natapoff, 2018). Further, enforcement of state misdemeanor
statutes does not reflect the full spectrum of lower-level contacts that police have with community
– local police may also enforce local, ordinance, or municipal violations through arrests,
citations, and summonses, as well as conduct other kinds of stops (traffic and pedestrian).
What drives misdemeanor enforcement?
Although misdemeanor enforcement may be driven by crime (Hughes et al., 2020) and community calls
for service (Glazener et al., 2020), research has also shown that this activity may be the result of other
influences. Changes in lower-level enforcement may be driven by factors that include:
• Police department policies and priorities (Lum & Vovak, 2017),
• Local government reliance on the fines and fees generated by a large number of convictions of
misdemeanor arrests (Martin, 2018; United States Department of Justice, 2015),
• Individual officer actions in areas of concentrated economic disadvantage (Smith, 1986; Sun et al.,
• Budgetary allocations and grants (Slocum et al., 2018).
What impact does misdemeanor and other lower-level enforcement have on
individuals and communities?
There is evidence that suggests misdemeanor arrests and other lower-level enforcement activities do
not always maximize public safety.
and, in some cases, can undermine trust and confidence in the police
(Schuck, 2020). Contact with the criminal legal system can also harm an individual’s health and well-being
(Sundaresh et al., 2020; Vergano, 2019). Lower-level arrests, and even police stops, can negatively impact
individuals and the communities they come from in a variety of ways, by:
• Decreasing the likelihood of cooperation with law enforcement in the future (Schuck, 2010; Tankebe,
• Reducing opportunities related to education, employment, and housing (Roberts, 2011),
• Increasing the likelihood that an individual is stopped or arrested again as a consequence of reduced
access to education, employment, and housing (Malcolm & Siebler, 2017).
Ultimately, understanding trends in misdemeanor enforcement is vital for a number of reasons. First, it
can help communities and policymakers determine whether the types of misdemeanor crimes that police
are enforcing are a priority for those communities and/or whether other resources are needed to address
persistent social problems (e.g., related to substance misuse). Second, 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. Finally, with information
about local trends in misdemeanor enforcement, the public, government leaders, and advocates are better
positioned to weigh community safety concerns against the potential harms of misdemeanor arrests.
Misdemeanor Trends By Demographics
Trends by Race and Ethnicity
Key Finding: Black people were arrested at the highest rates of any racial/ethnic group for all jurisdictions
across the entire study period. Racial disparities between Black people and White people existed in all
jurisdictions, and these disparities persisted despite the recent overall declines in arrest rates. However, the
magnitude of the disparities varied by jurisdiction and over time – ranging from approximately three to seven
arrests of Black people for one arrest of a White person.
In all jurisdictions, the arrest rate for Black people was the highest of any racial/ethnic category at the study
start. Further, in nearly all sites, the arrest rate for Black people saw the steepest decline. Despite these
large proportional declines, the arrest rate for Black people was still the highest of any racial/ethnic group
at study end, with only one exception.
11 Conversely, in most jurisdictions at study start, the arrest rate was
lowest for White individuals and remained low throughout the study period.
Across the Research Network sites, the Black-White disparity in misdemeanor arrest rates varied widely.
In some jurisdictions, this racial disparity was much starker than in others. For example, the Black-White
racial disparities in Prince George’s County and Louisville ranged from 2.2 to 3.4 and 2.9 to 3.4, respectively,
over the study period (see Table 2 and see Understanding Arrest Rates and Rate Ratios on page 8). Other
jurisdictions had much higher levels of racial disparity: racial disparities in D