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How The Misdemeanor System Intensifies Inequality


By definition, misdemeanors are relatively minor crimes. However, the misdemeanor system is so large, it includes a wide spectrum of offenses.

Minor offenses can range from jaywalking to spitting to littering. The more serious offenses include domestic violence and driving under the influence.

Through her research, UC-Irvine law professor Alexandra Natapoff explores the petty offense system that produces 13 million misdemeanor cases each year.

Her new book is called “Punishment Without Crime: How Our Massive Misdemeanor System Traps the Innocent and Makes America More Unequal."

Natapoff joined KERA's Krys Boyd on "Think" to talk about how these infractions often push vulnerable populations into poverty once the legal machine kicks in.

Interview Highlights: Alexandra Natapoff on...

Why would someone plead guilty to a misdemeanor they haven't committed? Because of the incentives to plead guilty. If someone can't afford bail, it means they're going to stay in jail until their case is resolved. In many jurisdictions, that could be weeks, even months. ... Prosecutors tend to make good offers up front, and if they take a deal right away, they'll only get probation and a fine, and they can go home that day. For people with children and for people at risk of losing their jobs, the [offer] looks like a good deal. ... People are taking those deals even though they may be innocent of the charge.

What happens if someone can't pay the fine that is assessed to them? There are thousands of people incarcerated basically because they were too poor to pay a fine. We call that debtors' prison, which is an ironic title because debtors' prison in this country is supposed to be unconstitutional. People are not supposed to be incarcerated for a debt. But there's this enormous loophole. ... People can be locked up basically because they're too poor to pay.

What is a maintenance offense? An order maintenance offense, sometimes called quality of life offenses or "broken windows" policing, is a whole arena of offenses [that include] loitering, trespassing or disorderly conduct. [These offenses] go to questions of disorder, but they're not harmful in and of themselves. They are essentially tools given to the police to maintain order in the streets and in communities. There's an enormous controversy over the use and, in many jurisdictions, the overuse of these offenses because they tend to be overused in poor communities of color. They tend to be aimed disproportionately at African-American men. ... And it's through these low-level offenses that many people have their first encounters, their first arrests, and their first convictions. ... Order maintenance policing is one of the primary ways that the misdemeanor system creates a racial skew in the entire criminal justice process.

Would police officers be open to enforcing fewer misdemeanors? One of the things that police officers have told us in different jurisdictions around the country, and sometimes through lawsuits against their own police departments, is that they feel pressure to make arrests and issue citations, not because those arrests are necessarily the right response at the moment, but to demonstrate their productivity. It's a way that they are evaluated professionally and they tell us that it's really destructive to their ability to do their jobs. So I think police officers are central to this conversation and they can teach us an enormous amount.

Interview responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Galilee Abdullah is an arts reporter.