Research Matters: Thomas Miles on “Does the ‘Community Prosecution’ Strategy Reduce Crime? A Test of Chicago’s Experience”

Research Matters is a biweekly feature in which a member of the faculty talks about some of his or her latest work and its impact and relevance to law and society.

Thomas Miles, Clifton R. Musser Professor of Law and Economics and Walter Mander Research Scholar, wrote this article for an upcoming issue of the American Law and Economics Review. In it, Miles explores the effectiveness of a new prosecution model in Chicago.

Q. What is “community prosecution?”

A. Community prosecution is this new prosecutorial approach that developed over the past 15 years. There has been a growing dissatisfaction with traditional prosecutorial approaches, which were mostly focused on obtaining convictions and sentencing people, and doing that in a way where it was like a mass production. Traditionally, prosecutors were located in an office, usually adjacent to the courthouse, and they faced a huge volume of cases in which to try to obtain convictions and the longest sentences possible. And there was a feeling that this may not necessarily be the best approach to crime control.

A key element of community prosecution was to take prosecutors out of that office next to the courthouse, to physically relocate them into the community. This entailed opening up a new prosecutor’s office that’s literally a storefront in a neighborhood. The work of prosecutors changed, too. They were liberated from mass-processing all those cases, all the time, and they went out and developed relationships with people in the community. They talked to them and learned, what are their concerns with crime control in the neighborhood? Then, they used that information to alter which prosecutions they bring, how they bring them, and importantly, to develop solutions that did not necessarily involve prosecutions.

Many jurisdictions have adopted community prosecution to varying degrees. But it’s never been tested to see whether it actually reduces crime. Through my affiliation with the University of Chicago Crime Lab, I learned about the experience with community prosecution here in Chicago, and I decided to study it. In Cook County, in the late 1990s, the state’s attorney adopted community prosecution in certain neighborhoods, but not others, because of budgetary concerns. Then, in 2007, there was a budget crisis across the county, and the prosecutor’s office had to cut back, and one of the things they decided to cut was the community prosecutions program. So the whole effort ceased. And then, when a new state’s attorney was elected, she promised to reinstate them, which she did beginning in 2009. So it’s a great experiment. Because it’s really two experiments; one, the staggered process of opening them, then turning it all off and shutting it down for two years, and then a staggered process over three years of turning them back on again.

Q. What did you find?

A. There were reductions in certain categories of violent crime and certain categories of property crime, but not in other categories. What was also really interesting is that these effects of crime reduction accrued almost immediately. And that suggests that there’s something about the mechanism which generates immediate benefits.

Q. So what categories of crime were reduced?

A. The ones that were reduced were aggravated assault and burglary, but then the category that didn’t seem to have any impact at all was larceny.

Q. Any theories as to why aggravated assault and burglary declined?

A. I didn’t know it at the time, but the state’s attorney’s office subsequently told me that it made perfect sense that burglary declined, because that was one of the offenses they prioritized. But that doesn’t explain the results for aggravated assault. What may have affected that is one of the things community prosecutors do, which is try to target the people in the neighborhood committing a lot of crimes. Community groups, as well as a large body of criminology literature, suggest that there is a small number of people responsible for many of the crimes in each neighborhood. Community prosecutors focused on people who had been arrested many times, even if they’ve been arrested many times for many small things. In a traditional prosecution model, those arrestees may not typically be a high priority for prosecution, but they might also be responsible for much disorder in a community. Aggravated assault might be one of those.

Q. Why are the benefits almost immediate?

A. My hunch is that it has something to do with the prosecutors getting superior information from the community groups about what the sources of crime are in the community, and that information can be used immediately. They can immediately prioritize where to devote their efforts, whether it is deploying non-prosecutorial solutions or bringing a different type of prosecution.  

Q. Do you make a recommendation about whether community prosecution should be used?

A. Community prosecution is very entrepreneurial. That makes it hard to be confident that the benefits that I observed here in Cook County would be replicated everywhere else. It also suggests that who is picked to be a community prosecutor is quite important, because they need a unique set of skills. Not only do they need to good courtroom lawyers, good prosecutors, and good investigators, which are the kinds of skills we usually associate with prosecution, but they also have to have these interpersonal skills, and that kind of self-initiative to go out and develop these relationships, to literally open a storefront. Those are a different set of skills, and it’s not clear that can be readily replicated. So the conclusion I come to is that, at least as it operated in Cook County, it generated benefits and the benefits were cost-justified, that is the benefits of the program were greater than the cost of running it. But we need to learn more about the mechanisms that produced the crime declines before we know whether it can be replicated elsewhere.

Q. Why do you find this compelling and worthy of research?

A. I teach criminal law, and I often conduct empirical studies of the criminal justice system. In teaching criminal law to first-year law students, prosecutorial discretion – especially its breadth – is a central theme.  Yet, empiricists who study the criminal justice system have infrequently studied prosecutors.  Instead, they have tended to study other actors in the criminal justice system, such as judges (asking why judges mete out stern sentences to some defendants and leniency to others, for instance) and defendants (asking about the determinants of recidivism, for example). Prosecutors figure centrally in law students’ study of criminal law, but from a social science perspective, we know relatively little about them.  When my affiliation with the Crime Lab put me into contact with community prosecutors and I learned about Cook County’s experience with it, I leapt at the chance to study community prosecution.  I saw it as a first step in better understanding how prosecutors work and what the effects of their decisions are.