• Thirteen million misdemeanor cases are filed each year in the U.S., and municipal courts have garnered criticism over how they’ve handled the vast caseload.
  • At the heart of the issue, critics say, is an under-resourced court system and a perverse incentive cycle encouraging swift trials and convictions to raise revenue.
  • Many police departments have policies that further exacerbate the problem, such as formal or informal quotas for tickets and citations.

It’s become a memorable line from the stump speech of New Jersey Senator and Democratic presidential hopeful Cory Booker:

“You can tell a lot about a country by who they incarcerate. In Russia, it’s political prisoners. In some countries, they lock up journalists. (In America) we lock up our most vulnerable in our society: disproportionately low-income people.”

A prime example of this trend in action is America’s bloated and complex misdemeanor system. A staggering 13 million misdemeanor cases are filed each year in the U.S., and municipal courts have garnered criticism from both the left and the right in recent years over how they’ve handled this vast caseload.

The term misdemeanor often carries a less serious connotation in the minds of many Americans, but it includes a broad range of offenses. Every local jurisdiction defines this category of crimes differently and enforces them differently, making the system ripe for abuse.

“Typically, they’re defined as any criminal offense for which you can do no more than one year incarceration as punishment,” said former federal public defender Alexandra Natapoff in an interview with NPR’s Terry Gross. “But misdemeanors come in all kinds of shapes and sizes. Sometimes we call them petty offenses. Sometimes we call them violations or ordinance violations.”

Misdemeanors can range in severity from seatbelt violations to prostitution. Due to the nature of the system, however, even the most innocuous violations can have life-altering consequences for those living on the edge of poverty.

As an example of what this can look like, Goldwater Institute investigative journalist Mark Flatten invites readers to imagine themselves in the shoes of someone caught in this cycle:

You get arrested for some ‘heinous’ crime, something like spitting on the sidewalk or failing to return a library book. The judge thinks there is a high risk that you might spit again, or cling to that volume of city property, or commit some other crime like smoking in a restricted area or littering. So he imposes bail of a few hundred dollars just to make sure you don’t skip town. You are poor, too poor to even raise that minimal sum.

And so you sit in jail. If you stay there, you will miss work and lose your job. Your kids will have no way to get to school. You will be separated from your family for who knows how long. Then the prosecutor makes you an offer. If you plead guilty and agree to pay a fine, you will be released. If you fight the charges, you will remain in jail for weeks or months until your trial.

Americans across the country face choices like this every day. After stealing a two-dollar can of beer, for instance, Tom Barrett found himself facing a vicious cycle of fines and fees that ended up adding up to more than $1,000. As a result, he spent a year in jail because he could not afford to pay the fine.

“Individuals who come into the system incur all kinds of debt — fines and fees and bail and other kinds of monetary penalties,” Napatoff said. “And for the low-income individuals who typically. . . represent the average person who encounters the misdemeanor system, that debt can be crushing.”

At the heart of the issue, critics say, is an under-resourced court system and a perverse incentive cycle that encourages swift trials and convictions to raise revenue and move through large caseloads rather than ensuring every American has their day in court.

This has the effect, Napatoff explained, of misdemeanors serving as significant revenue generators for local jurisdictions that fund things like courts, jurisdiction offices, and probation offices — instead of actually solving crimes and protecting public safety.

To make matters worse, many police departments have policies that further exacerbate the problem, such as both formal and informal quotas pressuring them to produce a certain number of arrests or citations.

“We rely on police discretion to advance public safety, to make sure people are treated fairly. And when we put pressure on police officers to produce citations and low-level arrests when they might not otherwise exercise their discretion that way, we’re really interfering with a key aspect of the system’s integrity,” Napatoff said.

Efforts to reform some of these misdemeanor practices are underway in states like Arizona, where the Goldwater Institute has produced a series of scathing investigative reports over the past two years examining the abusive practices of city courts. After those reports, the state of Arizona passed several reforms last year aimed at curbing some of the most egregious abuses of the misdemeanor system.

One particularly noteworthy bill changed the law to make driving on a suspended license a civil offense, rather than a criminal misdemeanor, provided the license was suspended for failing to pay traffic tickets or show up for a traffic court hearing. This means that people driving on a suspended license no longer face arrest and jail due to crimes as small as an unpaid traffic fine. Both houses of the Legislature passed the bill unanimously.

Read more from the Goldwater Institute about the abuses of city courts.

Image Credit: Photo by George Kedenburg III on Unsplash