Erasing the line between felony and misdemeanor
Two provocative new scholarly articles examine the extent to which the crisp line historically drawn in law between felonies and misdemeanors is becoming increasingly ephemeral. In Informed Misdemeanor Sentencing, Jenny Roberts points out that conviction of a misdemeanor has become exponentially more serious in recent years as the associated collateral consequences have increased in number and severity. She urges judges to “explicitly acknowledge the many serious collateral consequences an individual suffers after any penal sanction, and incorporate those into the sentencing process to ensure that punishment is proportionate.” She recommends that sentencing courts should make “more use of deferred adjudication as well as expungement and related mechanisms for mitigating the unintended effects of a misdemeanor conviction.”
Jack Chin and John Ormonde make essentially the same point about the blurring of the old distinction between felony and misdemeanor in a forthcoming article in the Minnesota Law Review. In Infamous Misdemeanors and the Grand Jury Clause, they point out that “[i]n the late 19th and early 20th century, the Supreme Court held in a series of cases, never overruled, that to charge an infamous misdemeanor required a grand jury indictment.” They conclude that, because of the stigma that attaches to any criminal record, the Fifth Amendment requires that “many more federal offenses should be prosecuted by grand jury indictment than is now the practice.”
It is impossible to determine exactly how many of the 48,000 consequences collected in the National Inventory of the Collateral Consequences of Conviction are triggered by a misdemeanor conviction, but so many legal and regulatory consequences attach to specific categories of offenses that include misdemeanors (e.g., drug crimes, sexual offenses, crimes involving dishonesty), it is likely a substantial portion. Moreover, given the ubiquity of criminal background checking pervading every area of modern life, even a criminal record involving dismissed misdemeanor charges may result in discrimination and exclusion.
There is no such thing as a low-stakes misdemeanor. The misdemeanor sentence itself, which can range from time served to up to twelve years in some jurisdictions, is often significant. But the collateral consequences of such a conviction can be far worse, affecting a person’s work and home lives for decades, and sometimes for the rest of their lives. As a result of misdemeanor convictions, defendants can be fired from their jobs, barred from future employment in many fields, deported, evicted from public housing together with their entire family, and refused housing by private landlords.Under most theories of punishment, a judge at sentencing does not simply look back to the crime and its circumstances but also looks forward at the defendant’s future. Judges imposing sentences in misdemeanor cases should focus forward much more heavily than back, and should consider the collateral effects of a misdemeanor conviction on the defendant’s future. Viewed through that more expansive lens, and given the broad discretion of judges in misdemeanor sentencing and lack of existing guidance for that discretion, the sentencing function of judges in misdemeanor cases is in serious need of study and reform.This Article’s goal is two-fold. First, it contextualizes judicial responsibility for misdemeanor sentencing in the realities of the lower criminal courts, where a number of structural and systemic barriers — including violations of the right to counsel and pressures on judges to move cases along rapidly — affect but do not excuse the way judges go about sentencing. Second, the Article calls for judges to undertake “informed misdemeanor sentencing,” which draws on principles of proportionality and parsimony in determining the just sentence in a misdemeanor case. Accordingly, judges should explicitly acknowledge the many serious collateral consequences an individual suffers after any penal sanction, and incorporate those into the sentencing process to ensure that punishment is proportionate. In addition, judges should bring parsimony into the sentencing process by making more use of deferred adjudication as well as expungement and related mechanisms for mitigating the unintended effects of a misdemeanor conviction.
Gabriel Jackson Chin & John Ormonde, Infamous Misdemeanors and the Grand Jury Clause, 102 Minnesota Law Review___ (2018)(forthcoming).
Under an overlooked body of constitutional law, many more federal offenses must be prosecuted by grand jury indictment than is now the practice. Current rules provide that felonies must be prosecuted by grand jury indictment, but misdemeanor charges may be based on a prosecutor’s information, or even a “ticket” issued by a law enforcement officer. However, serious consequences fall on people convicted of federal misdemeanors, including deportation, sex offender or other criminal registration, ineligibility for public benefits, and loss of civil rights. In the late 19th and early 20th century, the Supreme Court held in a series of cases, never overruled, that to charge an infamous misdemeanor required a grand jury indictment. The Court held that infamous offenses were ones potentially resulting in stigmatizing punishments degrading the offender’s status, indicating that the person is less than a full member of the community. These include corporal punishment, incarceration in a prison or penitentiary (as opposed to a jail), loss of civil rights or imposition of civil disabilities, and convictions implying moral turpitude. Many federal misdemeanors carry these consequences. And federal misdemeanors are much more likely to be dismissed without trial than felonies. More thoughtful evaluation of misdemeanor cases before charge would often terminate cases which wind up being dismissed after charge. As a result, thousands of Americans would avoid the stigma of a criminal record where it is unwarranted. This is what the framers of the Constitution intended.
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