In the wake of the national and international protests over police brutality, especially towards people of color, more attention is being paid to how people of color enter the criminal justice system. One of the major ways is through a low-level misdemeanor offense.
In fact, most state courts are flooded with misdemeanor cases. They account for 80% of all arrests and 80% of state criminal dockets.
“It’s surprising to many people to realize that misdemeanors — these low-level, often chump-change offenses that many of us commit routinely without even noticing it — make up the vast majority of what our criminal system does,” Alexandra Natapoff, a law professor and the author of Punishment Without Crime, told NPR news recently.
Many people have committed misdemeanors and faced no consequences, but the fact that an offense is considered a misdemeanor does not necessarily mean it isn’t serious. For example, domestic violence is often charged as a misdemeanor. So is OWI. A conviction on either offense can have major consequences, such as the loss of your right to bear arms in the case of domestic violence, or of your driver’s license, in the case of drunk driving.
That said, the vast majority of misdemeanor offenses are not serious. They include offenses such as loitering or trespassing. Nevertheless, the vast majority of the time a person interacts with the criminal justice system, it is over a misdemeanor.
‘Broken windows policing’ got us here
One way that people of color are pulled into the criminal justice system is through what has been referred to as “broken windows policing.” This is the largely discredited theory that aggressively enforcing lower-level offenses will prevent more serious offenses from occurring.
Eric Garner, a Black man who was killed by a police choke hold in 2014, was in the process of being arrested for a misdemeanor. He had allegedly sold loose, untaxed cigarettes on the street.
George Floyd, whose death sparked the protests, was killed after an accusation that he may have passed a counterfeit $20 bill.
According to Natapoff, misdemeanor enforcement costs billions of dollars each year, putting millions of people in jail and overwhelming our criminal systems. Yet there is “little, if any, demonstrable upside” to aggressive enforcement of misdemeanor offenses.
One way to help set things right with the criminal justice system might be to reduce our enforcement of misdemeanors and focus police and prosecutorial resources on more serious crimes. At the very least, we would know that when someone was arrested with force, it was more likely to be over a serious offense.