Misdemeanor Justice For Millions “Blindingly Swift,” Often Without Lawyers


For millions charged each year with misdemeanor crimes, justice can be “blindingly swift,” says the Wall Street Journal. In Florida, misdemeanor courts routinely disposed of cases in three minutes or fewer, usually with a guilty plea, says a 2011 National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers study. Detroit judges usually have over 100 misdemeanor cases on the docket, one every four minutes. Miami public defenders hardly have time to introduce themselves to misdemeanor clients before the cases are over. Aggressive policing and tough-on-crime laws have flooded the court system with misdemeanors, including small-time crimes like public drunkenness, loitering or petty theft.

The state courts that handle such charges often resemble assembly lines where time is in short supply. Many poor defendants, despite their right to court-appointed legal counsel, don't get lawyers, and those who do often receive scant help. Over the past 20 years, U.S. authorities have made more than a quarter billion arrests, and they add 12 million more each year. The arrests have left nearly one of every three adults on file in the FBI's criminal database. Misdemeanor charges, which typically carry fines or jail terms under a year, account for most criminal cases, says the National Center for State Courts in Williamsburg, Va. Felonies such as murder, rape and armed robbery, and criminal traffic and appellate cases, make up the rest.

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