First-ever national report on misdemeanor courts finds efficient enforcement will unclog the courts, improve public safety and save money
NEWS ITEM: Misdemeanors will no longer be prosecuted in Contra Costa County [Cal.] because of budget cuts, the county’s top prosecutor said Tuesday. The changes are needed to help eliminate a $1.9 million budget deficit in the district attorney’s office for this fiscal year. By month’s end, 6 deputy district attorneys will be laid off, and 11 more will have to be let go by the end of the year. –San Francisco Chronicle, Apr. 22, 2009 at B1.
Washington, DC (April 28, 2009) – Nationwide, state and local governments are wasting millions of tax dollars to prosecute petty offenses, creating huge deficits in their budgets and violating the constitutional rights of citizens haled into court. That is the conclusion of Minor Crimes, Massive Waste: The Terrible Toll of America’s Broken Misdemeanor Courts, a report released today by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) that comprehensively examines misdemeanor courts across the country.
The report, available online >>here, recommends that states divert non-violent misdemeanor cases that do not impact public safety to programs that are less costly to taxpayers and repay society through community service or civil fines.
“Misdemeanor court is a black hole for justice and resources,” said NACDL President John Wesley Hall. “I don’t think there is a bigger waste of human potential and taxpayer money in the entire criminal justice system. Across the country, states need to implement more efficient enforcement policies for petty infractions – policies that ‘pay off,’ instead of ‘adding up.’” Hall said a huge part of the costs to communities is jailing persons who cannot afford to pay fines. “At an average of $50 to $60 per person per day, that kind of policy really adds up.”
Misdemeanors—infractions such as curfew violations, loitering and open container laws—lead to expensive prosecutions on the taxpayers’ dime. The volume of cases is staggering. A median state misdemeanor rate of 3,544 cases per 100,000 citizens indicates that taxpayers are burdened with paying the costs of more than 10 million misdemeanor prosecutions per year, the report said.
With courts this clogged, public defenders and probation officers are forced to handle hundreds more cases than they can ethically manage, spending just minutes preparing for each case. And some defendants are completely deprived of their constitutional right to counsel, putting states at risk for expensive lawsuits on top of the heavy financial burden of unnecessary incarceration costs.
Research and drafting of the report was a collaborative effort between NACDL and Professor Robert C. Boruchowitz of the Seattle University School of Law. In addition to compiling of misdemeanor courts in a number of jurisdictions, NACDL conducted interviews with key criminal justice personnel in misdemeanor courts across the country, including judges, defense counsel, prosecutors and accused. Where possible, NACDL site teams also gathered data on misdemeanor prosecutions, public defender caseloads, and other relevant statistics. The authors also conducted a national survey of defense lawyers seeking information on misdemeanor practices in respondents’ jurisdictions. In 2008, NACDL held misdemeanor practice conferences in New York and Seattle with over 150 public defenders, prosecutors, judges and policy persons in attendance.
“It is stunning how many people go without lawyers,” Boruchowitz said. “And it is almost unbelievable how many cases some public defenders have. In four major cities—Atlanta, Chicago, Miami, and New Orleans—defenders have more than 2000 cases per lawyer per year. In New Orleans it is more than 18,000, which means that the lawyer has five minutes per client.”
Boruchowitz added, “As a society, we need to spend our limited tax dollars wisely. There are a lot of cases—suspended driver license cases for example—that can be diverted from the criminal justice system with no risk to public safety.”
The study was made possible in part with funding provided by NACDL’s Foundation for Criminal Justice, with additional support from the Open Society Institute and the Ford Foundation.
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The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers is the preeminent organization advancing the mission of the criminal defense bar to ensure justice and due process for persons accused of crime or wrongdoing. A professional bar association founded in 1958, NACDL's many thousands of direct members in 28 countries – and 90 state, provincial and local affiliate organizations totaling up to 40,000 attorneys – include private criminal defense lawyers, public defenders, military defense counsel, law professors and judges committed to preserving fairness and promoting a rational and humane criminal legal system.