“The Scale of Misdemeanor Justice”
This Article seeks to inform misdemeanor scholarship and policy by creating the most comprehensive national-level analysis of misdemeanor criminal justice that is currently feasible given the state of data collection in the United States. First, we estimate that there are 13.2 million misdemeanor cases filed in the United States each year. Second, contrary to conventional wisdom, this number is not rising. Both the number of misdemeanor arrests and cases filed have declined markedly in recent years. In fact, arrest rates for almost every misdemeanor offense category have been declining for at least two decades in almost every state for which data is available. Third, there is profound racial disparity in the misdemeanor arrest rate for most—but not all—offense types. This is sobering if not surprising. More unexpectedly, perhaps, the variation in racial disparity across offense types has remained remarkably constant over the past thirty-seven years; the offenses marked by the greatest racial disparity in arrest rates in 1980 are more or less the same as those marked by greatest racial disparity today.
Our national caseload estimate confirms current perceptions about the scale of misdemeanor justice, but the declining arrest and case-filing rates present a challenge for misdemeanor scholarship. Contemporary research on misdemeanors has been influenced by the impression that the system is expanding. As a result, the theoretical contributions made by recent scholars provide no immediate explanation for the decline in misdemeanor arrests and case-filing rates. In addition, we document what to us was a surprising degree of uniformity in misdemeanor trends. Such consistency suggests that the misdemeanor system may have a deeper and more uniform structure than we anticipated, and may be subject to common influences across jurisdictions. As misdemeanor scholarship develops, we believe that an important challenge is to expand our theories of misdemeanor justice to make sense of the statistical patterns presented here.
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