Race + the Criminal Legal System: Racially Charged Misdemeanors

Approximately 13 million misdemeanor charges are filed each year in the U.S., representing around 80% of all cases. Law enforcement’s unchecked discretion allows them to use the extensive collection of misdemeanor offenses to stop, search, and arrest individuals—disproportionately Black and Latinx individuals—for behaviors unrelated to public safety. In serving as the justification for these stops, misdemeanors often provide a gateway to police violence, as in the cases of Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Daunte Wright, and George Floyd, each of whom was stopped for a suspected misdemeanor.

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Lisa Wayne, Past President of NACDL and the current President of the NACDL Foundation for Criminal Justice, moderates a discussion around Brave New Films’ recently released documentary Racially Charged: America’s Misdemeanor Problem. This short film traces America’s modern misdemeanor system back to the post-civil war period, unpacking the criminalization of certain conduct as a means for social and economic control over Black Americans. Panelists include Bernice Corley, Executive Director of the Indiana Public Defender Council, and Alexandra Natapoff, the Lee S. Kreindler Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and author of Punishment Without Crime: How Our Massive Misdemeanor System Traps the Innocent and Makes America More Unequal.

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