Policy Studies Alternatives to Arrest

Combating the Rise in Homicides by Expanding the Use of Citations In Lieu of Arrest


Maya Szilak
Former Resident Senior Fellow, Criminal Justice and Civil Liberties

Key Points

The surge in violent crime, particularly homicides, warrants increased attention from law enforcement.

Police need better methods to handle petty offenses that will free up time and resources for violent crimes.

Issuing citations in lieu of arrest improves community relations; reduces recidivism and jail crowding; and allows officers to spend more time addressing the surge in violent crime.

Executive Summary

The rise in homicide rates that began in 2020 continues to be a major source of public concern. Law enforcement agencies need effective strategies to deal with this issue without unduly burdening taxpayers or asking more of already cash-strapped state and local governments. Issuing citations to non-violent offenders who commit low-level crimes and present low flight risk is one method by which law enforcement agencies can address increased homicides. For instance, officers may summon offenders to appear in court at a later date and release them at the scene, in lieu of placing them under custodial arrest or jailing offenders. The use of citations in lieu of arrest enhances law enforcement capacity to address violent crime by reducing time and energy spent on low-level arrests. Reducing low-level arrests through citations can also lessen risk of harm to officers and citizens in street encounters, improve community relations and reduce overall recidivism. While the use of citations in lieu of arrest presents potential drawbacks, largely centered around increased rates of failure to appear and net widening effects, negative impacts can be minimized through data collection by law enforcement agencies to identify problems in citation programs and facilitate the development of practices to address these issues.


Between 2019 and 2021, the United States experienced a historic rise in homicide rates that continues unabated. Yet, meaningful and careful analysis of this phenomenon has been largely absent in the public sphere. In part, this is due to inadequate data collection, alongside a reduced case clearance rate of 54 percent for homicides in 2020, compared to 61 percent in 2019. Consequently, important information is absent, including demographic information about offenders, victims, their relationships and the circumstances surrounding a homicide. In short, much data and information surrounding the homicide spike remains unknown.

Nevertheless, some things are certain. We know that in 2020, the number of homicides increased nationally by nearly 30 percent from 2019—the largest single-year increase seen since national data collection of homicides began in the 1960s. We also know from preliminary data analysis of 22 cities that homicide rates continued to climb in cities in the first six months of 2021, but at the less drastic rate of 16 percent, compared to the spike between 2019 and 2020.

The United States is experiencing a homicide crisis. The critical question given the limited information at hand is what concrete actions can enhance the capacity of law enforcement to address this crisis. In times of crisis, policymakers and politicians tend to overreact or underreact by either imposing extreme measures to respond to a threat to quell public fear, or by failing to take necessary action to reduce risk of harm, thereby disavowing the extent or even the existence of a crisis to mitigate public perceptions of risk.

Neither of these approaches is of practical help to law enforcement, who need pragmatic, concrete strategies to assist them in effectively addressing the surge in homicides. While no single strategy is likely to address the rise in homicides, modest, cost-effective reforms can help to enhance law enforcement capacity on this front.

Chief among these is the expansion of written citations in place of custodial arrest for low-level, non-violent offenses, which can minimize costs; reduce jail crowding; increase institutional safety; improve trust between police officers and communities; reduce the risk of harm to officers and police-civilian shootings; and increase law enforcement capacity to focus on homicides. While there are challenges and potential drawbacks to expanding the use of citations in lieu of arrest, evidence suggests that the overall benefits may outweigh costs. In addition, planning and data collection can help law enforcement agencies overcome problems in expanding the use of citations and minimize setbacks, which include potential increases in rates of “failure to appear in court” of cited offenders, thereby allowing agencies to secure the greatest gains.

Press Release: Give law enforcement resources to address violent crime by changing arrest practices

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