Misdemeanors Blamed for Much Criminal-Justice Racism

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The police killings of George Floyd, Eric Garner and other black people began with allegations of a minor offense, such as passing a counterfeit $20 bill or selling untaxed cigarettes. Misdemeanors — these types of low-level criminal offenses — account for about 80 percent of all arrests and 80 percent of state criminal dockets, law Prof. Alexandra Natapoff of the University of California at Irvine and author of “Punishment Without Crime” tells NPR. “It’s surprising to many people to realize that misdemeanors — these low-level, often chump-change offenses that many of us commit routinely without even noticing it — make up the vast majority of what our criminal system does,” Natapoff says.

“The offenses can include everything from traffic offenses to spitting, loitering, trespassing, all the way up to more serious offenses like DUI or many domestic violence offenses,” she says. “It’s … the vast majority of ways that individuals interact with  police.” Natapoff says the misdemeanor system has “not gotten its fair share of blame” for the racism of the criminal justice system and how it disproportionately affects people of color. “This is the beginning of how we sweep people of color, and African Americans in particular, into our criminal system,” she says, through over-policing black neighborhoods, racial profiling and practices like stop-and-frisk. “We can shrink the net by shrinking our misdemeanor codes — that’s the job of the legislature,” Natapoff says.

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