Misdemeanor charges can disrupt people’s lives. Here’s what happens when district attorneys stop prosecuting them.

Collaborator: Streetlight
Published: 09/01/2021, 2:43 PM

(NATIONAL) In April, former Brooklyn Center, Minnesota police officer Kim Potter shot and killed 20-year-old Daunte Wright after a traffic stop for an expired registration tag, a misdemeanor. The shooting took place as officers, who found Wright had an outstanding gross misdemeanor warrant, were beginning to take him into custody.

Read this story on Big If True here.

Misdemeanors don’t often receive much public attention. But for people on the receiving end of these charges, misdemeanors can be expensive, disruptive and a potential entry point to deeper involvement with the criminal legal system. In some cases, like the traffic stop that ended in Wright’s death, the policing of misdemeanors can be fatal.

In 2018, misdemeanors made up 77% of the dockets for state criminal courts, according to the National Center for State Courts. These cases have a high guilty plea rate and are unlikely to go to trial, leading to “assembly line justice,” said Miriam Krinsky, executive director of advocacy organization Fair and Just Prosecution.

“There’s really no testing of the integrity of those prosecutions, no testing of the strength of the evidence,” she said. “People just want to be done with the case, and whatever may have happened, they’ll take a guilty plea and move on. But we know they can be accompanied by collateral consequences … that cause people to end up in that spiral downward that puts them through the revolving door of the criminal legal system.”

Misdemeanor cases can be lengthy, taking months or a year to resolve before the pandemic stalled courts.

“But even when that case is over, depending on how it fell out, that’s on their record,” said Carl Guthrie, an attorney who represents low-income clients in Austin, Texas. “They’re built to not go away.”

Many misdemeanor charges are filed disproportionately against people of color, as shown in a May study from the Deason Criminal Justice Reform Center based at Southern Methodist University’s law school.

The center found that in Dallas, Texas in 2018, 64% of people receiving misdemeanor possession charges for marijuana were Black, despite making up just 24% of the population. In Richardson, a Dallas suburb, Black people made up 10% of the population but represented 52% of those charged.

Misdemeanors are a direct result of policing, which has historically targeted communities of color. During the 1990s, law enforcement agencies started adopting strategies in line with a policing theory called “broken windows.” The idea, which has since been discredited, was that prosecuting and incarcerating people for small infractions, like graffiti or loitering, would lead to fewer serious, violent crimes.

“One of the results,” said Andrew Davies, director of research for the Deason center, “was that policing deployment procedures have persistently, up until the present day, been focused on policing Black and brown neighborhoods and also poor neighborhoods, because those were the places that were identified not only as having a tendency toward violent crime, but also kind of a tendency toward low-level visual disorder – garbage on the street and literally broken windows.”

Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins, whose Boston office stopped prosecuting 15 misdemeanors in 2019, expressed concerns about the potential for traffic stops for low-level offenses to lead to deadly situations.

“These have real consequences and implications, not only for communities, but for law enforcement,” Rollins told BigIfTrue.org. “These stops can escalate into things where people lose their lives and livelihoods and are significantly traumatized afterward, and I think it’s really important that people start looking at these types of crimes.”

Rollins is part of a small wave of prosecutors around the country who have stopped prosecuting certain misdemeanors, arguing that pouring resources into low-level, non-violent crimes doesn’t make communities safer.

Fines, fees and suspended driver’s licenses

Arrests on misdemeanor charges and time in jail, however brief, can cause people to lose work, housing or custody of their children. It could disrupt their treatment plan for substance abuse or mental health issues. And people convicted of misdemeanors also could no longer be eligible for welfare benefits or public housing.

Low-income defendants may face costs that are out of their budget when coming to court, like missing work, hiring a babysitter and finding transportation. That’s before they receive any fines or fees from court.

In a Federal Reserve survey from 2020, 36% of those polled said they couldn’t afford a $400 emergency expense. Fines and fees from misdemeanors can be out of range for anyone who doesn’t already have the resources to pay.

“If you’ve got $200 and you get some ticket for anything from public intoxication to a little fight to a speeding ticket, you can probably get an attorney to make that go away,” Guthrie said. “But a lot of people don’t.”

In Texas, the lowest-level marijuana charge – a Class C misdemeanor for paraphernalia possession – has a maximum fine of $500.

Misdemeanors for marijuana possession can carry sentences of up to six months to a year in jail, and the fines get much steeper. Those charged could wind up owing up to $2,000 for a Class B misdemeanor and up to $4,000 for Class A offenses.

“This kind of added, piling on of fines and fees when individuals can’t pay them can put them further into the cycle of not being able to comply with court orders,” Krinsky said.

When people lack the resources to pay their fines, they risk being held in contempt of court, which could be paired with another fine or jail time.

Aside from fines, some misdemeanor convictions result in driver’s license suspensions. Davies said that when people in poverty lose their licenses, they often keep driving to work out of the necessity to earn an income.

“And the consequence then is that they get taken to court and get fines and fees assessed,” Davies said. “And that’s just another instance where poverty and the need to make money tends to compound what was initially a small criminal justice exposure and a small criminal punishment, and it turns it into a much more costly criminal punishment.”

How less prosecution of misdemeanors changes policing

As some district and state’s attorneys reduce their misdemeanor caseloads, early research shows that this move led police to enforce fewer low-level misdemeanors without sacrificing public safety.

After taking office two years ago, Rollins stopped prosecuting a list of low-level misdemeanors, like drug possession and minor driving offenses. A study published this year analyzed about 20 years of data from the office and found that after Rollins’ policy change, crime didn’t increase and misdemeanor defendants were less likely to be involved in the criminal legal system in the future.

Before her election, Rollins became interested in this approach after learning the office had 1,300 unsolved homicides, yet 80% of the cases it handled were low-level, non-violent misdemeanors.

“The same communities that are overwhelmingly seeing really high police presence and overprosecution for these nonviolent, non-serious crimes, those are the same communities that have the unsolved homicides,” Rollins said. When law enforcement prioritizes misdemeanors over violent crimes, she said, “We look schizophrenic as the police. We look like we don’t know what we’re doing.”

She said reducing her office’s misdemeanor caseload has allowed her staff to put more resources behind solving violent crimes, like homicides, felony-level assaults, sexual assaults and crimes against children.

A handful of district attorneys in Texas, Tennessee, Missouri and other states have stopped prosecuting certain marijuana misdemeanors.

In 2019, Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot announced his office would stop prosecuting most first-time possession cases involving marijuana. The office also started requiring police to include lab test results with marijuana cases that they sent over for prosecution.

During the first year of the policy change, the number of marijuana misdemeanors that police brought to the district attorney’s office dropped by about a third from the year before, a Deason center study found. At 21 police agencies in Dallas County, arrests for marijuana fell by 11%.

The numbers from Dallas and Boston show that when district attorneys refuse to prosecute certain cases, that pushes law enforcement to shift its focus elsewhere.

“So there’s that ripple effect into policing that results inherently in a redirection of law enforcement resources, which is a good thing,” Krinsky said. “That’s exactly what we would want to see – policing better used and better focused on the kinds of cases that truly matter to public safety.”

Contact BigIfTrue.org editor Mollie Bryant at 405-990-0988 or bryant@bigiftrue.org. Follow her on Twitter.

This report was funded by our readers. BigIfTrue.org is a 501(c)(3) news nonprofit based in Oklahoma City, and you can support our independent journalism here.


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