Newsletter: Should Prosecutors Pursue Minor Crimes?

Should Prosecuters Pursue Minor Crimes Open to Debate


John Milhiser
Former U.S. Attorney for
the Central District of Illinois


Paul Butler
Former Federal Prosecutor at the
U.S. Department of Justice; Professor
at Georgetown University Law Center



Here is what we have in store this week:

This week’s debate on whether prosecuting nonviolent, low-level misdemeanors creates more harm than good

A closer look at the rates at which other countries incarcerate their populations

 Your Sunday reading list



Baltimore’s new top prosecutor made an announcement recently — a policy change reversing a policy change. From now on, said State’s Attorney Ivan Bates, police will be enforcing laws against offenses like drug possession and loitering. “We just cannot allow people to do whatever they want,” Bates said.

It’s a break from his predecessor’s decision in 2021 to stop pursuing convictions for what is considered “minor crimes” — offenses like shoplifting, defacing property, and public urination. This has been a trend in the last few years, beyond Baltimore. In New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, and St. Louis, officials have likewise decreed that such crimes no longer merit being prosecuted, much less punished.

To be sure, these are also places with progressive governments whose leaders argue that the pursuit of minor crimes rarely acts to deter those committing them, while also working unfairly against the poor and other marginalized groups.

But this stance is facing pushback, as evidenced right now in Baltimore, and as more critics insist that pre-emptively giving a pass to crimes of any magnitude sends a message that lawlessness is becoming acceptable.

Prosecutors can differ over which side has the better argument here. In fact, two of them do just that in the Open to Debate episode we’re releasing this week. Law professor Paul Butler and attorney John Milhiser bring a spirited disagreement to this question: “Should We Prosecute Minor Crimes.” What’s especially cool is that both of them have been prosecutors, which means that, whichever side they’re on, they are arguing from experience, which makes this an especially good one for us at Open To Debate.

I hope you’ll join us.

John Donvan



The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world. What percentage of prison inmates are there based on low-level crimes?




Should Prosecutors Pursue Minor Crimes?



“Not prosecuting minor crimes leads to more crime and does not get these individuals who are committing these crimes the help they need, and it does not reduce recidivism. That should be a priority for every prosecutor in this country and that is putting those that are committing these crimes in the best position to not reoffend.”

John Milhiser



“If you compare somebody who gets arrested and prosecuted and punished for a minor crime with someone who commits that same offense, but there isn’t the punitive response, what the evidence shows is that that person who gets the break is less likely to re-offend.”

Paul Butler




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