Misdemeanor courts are a
waste of time and money.
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 misdemeanor defendants.
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 there.
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
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 cases."
A copy of the report is
available at http://www.nacdl.org/misdemeanor.
Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers
L. St. N.W., 12th Floor