Academic journal article Contemporary Economic Policy

The Impact of Low-Priority Laws on Criminal Activity: Evidence from California

Academic journal article Contemporary Economic Policy

The Impact of Low-Priority Laws on Criminal Activity: Evidence from California

Article excerpt

We examine the impact of low-priority initiatives on criminal activity. Low-priority initiatives mandate that minor marijuana possession offenses be the lowest enforcement priority for police. Localities pass these laws because they believe if officers devote fewer resources toward minor marijuana crimes, more resources will be available to deter more serious crimes. Using data from California, we find that jurisdictions that adopted low-priority laws experienced a reduction in arrests for misdemeanor marijuana offenses. However, we do not find evidence of a consistent effect of enacting a low-priority initiative on the crime or clearance rate of other felonies. (JEL H1, H4, K4)


Becker (1968) proposed a model of rational criminal behavior where individuals weigh the costs and benefits of crime and, based on that calculation, choose whether or not to engage in criminal activity. This model of criminal behavior predicts that increasing police resources will increase the probability a criminal will be arrested, thus increasing the costs of crime and ultimately reducing crime rates. Since the seminal work of Becker, numerous economists have tested the effect of additional police officers on crime rates within a jurisdiction, with researchers initially finding no effect or a positive effect and more recent papers with improved methodologies finding a negative effect (Benson et al. 1992; Benson and Rasmussen 1991; Benson, Rasmussen, and Kim 1998; Corman and Mocan 2000; Cornwell and Trumbull 1994; Klick and Tabarrok 2005; Levitt 1997, 2002; McCrary 2002; Sollars, Benson, and Rasmussen 1994).

While in the past policy makers have focused on the impact of increasing the number of police officers on crime rates, recent policy initiatives have attempted to change how officers allocate their time. More specifically, are officers spending their time and effort in a manner that we, as a society, consider to be the best use of these resources? One policy that specifically adjusted the allocation of officer time that has become increasingly popular is a low-priority initiative. The cities that have adopted a low-priority law believe that by shifting attention away from low-level drug crimes, officers will be able to focus additional time toward more serious crimes, such as murder, rape, robbery, assault, burglary, motor vehicle theft (MVT), and larceny. While low-priority initiatives have been adopted by several localities since 1979, no research thus far has examined the impact of these mandates on criminal activity. In this article, we look at the impact of the adoption of a low-priority initiative on criminal activity in California.

We examine how the adoption of a low priority initative, which required officers to allocate their time differently, affected criminal activity within a jurisdiction. Much of the existing empirical work examining the relationship between police protection and its deterrent effect on criminal activity has relied on the aggregate number of police officers, not on the relative amount of time officers spend on various tasks. To determine the effect of additional police resources on crime rates, the manner in which officers allocate their limited time is the relevant information. Because direct data on the division of time and resources within police departments are not available, policies such as a low-priority initiative, which mandates a specific allocation of a police officer's time, provide an opportunity to observe the consequences of reallocating police resources on criminal activity.

We estimate the effect of the adoption of a low-priority law on misdemeanor marijuana drug arrests using California data from 2000 to 2009. Using a city-level panel data set, we find that the adoption of a low-priority initiative reduced the number of arrests for misdemeanor marijuana offenses per person, with statistically significant effects in the largest cities. …

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