April 29, 2009
National Law Journal
By Tresa Baldas
Misdemeanor courts are a waste of time
So claims the National Association of Criminal Defense
Lawyers, which on Tuesday issued a first-of-its-kind national report on the
status of misdemeanor courts across the country. The report, which involved
18 months' worth of research at courts in seven states, concluded that
state and local governments are wasting millions of tax dollars to
prosecute petty offenses, such as curfew and open container violations,
loitering and feeding the homeless. The report found that taxpayers are
footing the bill for more than 10 million misdemeanor prosecutions per
year, paying an average of $60 a day, per inmate, to incarcerate
Courts are also violating the constitutional rights of
citizens who are being hauled into court, the report claims, and often
coerced into cutting deals without legal representation.
The report, titled Minor Crimes, Massive Waste: The Terrible
Toll of America's Broken Misdemeanor Courts, comes on the heels of a recent
announcement that misdemeanors will no longer be prosecuted in
Contra Costa County ,
Calif. because of budget cuts.
Perfect timing, noted NACDL President John Wesley Hall, who
called misdemeanor courts "a black hole for justice and
resources." Hall added, "It's a huge waste of money when you
think of the huge fundamental costs that go along with misdemeanor
prosecutions — the prosecution's time, the judge's time, and jail
incarceration time — these are mostly hidden costs."
Hall said that a huge part of the costs to communities is
jailing persons who cannot afford to pay fines.
New York City 's jail rates are especially
high, he said, noting that it costs $200 a day to house a jail inmate
Money issues aside, Hall said he's more concerned with
misdemeanor courts "ramming" through defendants who can't afford
a lawyer and coercing them into striking deals that have consequences, such
as a crime showing up on a background check, costing someone a job or
credit. He is also calling on the justice system to "find some way to
decriminalize really, really minor offenses."
"It's a crime to have your pants too low? That shouldn't
be a crime," he said.
The report, meanwhile, recommends that states divert
nonviolent misdemeanor cases that do not affect public safety to programs
that are less costly to taxpayers and repay society through community
service or civil fines.
Gerald B. Lefcourt, an attorney in private practice in
New York and a past president of NACDL, is calling
for "smarter misdemeanor policies" in
New York .
"By imposing fines and community service rather than jail
time for the most minor offenses, New
York City , New York
State, and states everywhere, can save millions on costly prosecutions
while still maintaining public safety," Lefcourt said in a statement.
" And with a reduced caseload, public defenders will be able to
provide the legal counsel the Constitution requires for more serious
A copy of the report is available at http://www.nacdl.org/misdemeanor.
National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers
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