The rise in violent crime consumed the lion’s share of the preelection conversation, with much of it disconnected from the realities of public safety.
Now that the votes have been counted, voters deserve accountability from their representatives to work actively to increase the safety of their communities, regardless of fluctuating crime statistics or political whims and partisan narratives. Missouri, which is controlled by a Republican legislature and a Republican governor, has the perfect opportunity to do right by taxpayers and law enforcement by enshrining freedom-oriented principles in a way that improves public safety and preserves limited government.
Over the past year, law enforcement across the country has looked for innovative ways to better respond to crises in their communities — including through implementation of policing models such as law enforcement assisted diversion, co-responders and community responders. Many legislators have paralleled these efforts.
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For example, Missouri State Rep. Lane Roberts, a Republican and retired law enforcement officer, proposed statutory changes to right-size the misallocation of public safety resources and officer time. The result would increase police legitimacy by creating better relationships between community and law enforcement. Roberts’ bill advances the simple idea that individuals should not be arrested for not paying a monetary penalty or appearing for a court date linked to some traffic infractions.
This proposal, implemented in other states, provides an off-ramp out of the criminal justice system for those who do not pose great threats to public safety. It’s a strong, successful example of alternative-to-arrest programs known as “citations in lieu of arrest.”
Citation in lieu of arrest programs are proven to increase citizen access to much-needed resources, decrease recidivism and allow law enforcement officers to focus on more serious crimes in the communities they serve. The challenge with this model — as seen in Roberts’ bill — is determining the most effective way to enforce that people pay the citation instead of serving time in jail.
Currently, if an offender fails to pay the fine or fee, states — Missouri included— often suspend individuals’ driver’s licenses as a penalty. This can have the effect of criminalizing poverty and at times, forcing nearly impossible economic decisions for individuals between family support and wellbeing and abiding by the law. Furthermore, license suspension is proven to be an ineffective means to collect debt.
As Missouri legislators look toward the upcoming legislative session, there are a multitude of opportunities to advance public safety and improve proposed legislation in a way that respects the human impact of government efficiency and expands the ability of law enforcers to function as they see fit to prevent crime.
As an example, legislators in Florida, another Republican-led state, put forth a bill in the 2022 legislative session that would expand the types of offenses eligible for citation in lieu of arrest to include most first or second-degree misdemeanors and municipal or county ordinances. It also clearly states which public safety-focused offenses would still be subject to arrests.
These types of laws are about much more than fairness to the offender, they also could have a significant ripple effect that reduces the high cost to keep someone in jail and allows police to spend more time working on issues that directly impact public safety. Right now, law enforcement officers spend only 4% of their time on average working cases involving serious crime. In the face of increased violent crime, rightsizing this statistic should be a priority for communities across the country.
Other possible options include offering community service instead of a fine or fee, implementing community supervision instead of suspending a license and switching to more effective debt collection methods.
Reserving law enforcement resources for those who pose larger public safety threats, creating a culture of redemption instead of indiscriminate severe punishment, and improving the nature of police-citizen interactions are all noble goals served by smart consideration of criminal law. Given the strong public focus on keeping communities safe, the efforts to allow officers to use citations in lieu of arrest — combined with other existing smart reforms to policing and pretrial systems — stand to improve public safety massively for the betterment of all individuals.
Jillian Snider is the policy director for R Street’s Criminal Justice and Civil Liberties team, an adjunct lecturer at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a retired New York Police Department officer. Sarah Anderson is the associate director of the Criminal Justice and Civil Liberties program at the R Street Institute.