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February 27, 2012

Thoughtful discussion of too-often forgotten story of misdemeanors

Professor Alexandra Natapoff has this interesting new piece on SSRN titled simply "Misdemeanors." As this abstract highlights, it covers lots of important ground that rarely gets the attention merited:

Misdemeanor convictions are typically dismissed as low-level events that do not deserve the attention or due process accorded to felonies.  And yet with ten million petty cases filed every year, the vast majority of U.S. convictions are misdemeanors.  In comparison to felony adjudication, misdemeanor processing is largely informal and deregulated, characterized by high-volume arrests, weak prosecutorial screening, an impoverished defense bar, and high plea rates.  Together, these engines generate convictions in bulk, often without meaningful scrutiny of whether those convictions are supported by evidence. Indeed, innocent misdemeanants routinely plead guilty to get out of jail because they cannot afford bail.  The consequences of these convictions are significant: in addition to the stigma of a criminal record, misdemeanants are often heavily fined, incarcerated, and/or lose jobs, housing, and educational opportunities. In other words, petty convictions are growing more frequent and burdensome even as we devote fewer institutional resources to ensuring their validity.

The misdemeanor phenomenon has profound systemic implications.  It invites skepticism about whether thousands of individual misdemeanants are actually guilty.  It reveals an important structural feature of the criminal system: that due process and rule-of-law wane at the bottom of the penal pyramid where offenses are pettiest and defendants are poorest.  And it is a key ingredient in the racialization of crime, because misdemeanor processing is the mechanism by which poor defendants of color are swept up into the criminal system, i.e., “criminalized,” with little or no regard for their actual guilt.  In sum, the misdemeanor process is an institutional gateway that explains many of the criminal system’s dynamics and dysfunctions.

February 27, 2012 at 09:04 AM | Permalink


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Misdemeanors are just plea that follows felonly arrests and charges.

Posted by: Federale | Feb 27, 2012 2:26:48 PM

One must specify. Is the charge discussed the initial charge or the fictitious adjudicated charge? If the latter is the subject, this article means nothing. It is like an article about cousin Santa, fictitious. Someone has to explain how so much fiction is tolerated in the law, and prosecuted in any other field.

A cancer patient is told she has a cold. A car with bad brakes is said to need new tires. A house with a leaky roof is said to need basement insulation. What would the lawyer do about those fictitious utterances, all done with knowledge of the real truth? If the practitioners of these fields made up these fictions 95% of the encounters, what would the reputation of the field become?

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Feb 28, 2012 6:42:06 AM

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