Appreciating the full consequences of a misdemeanor

Misdemeanor punishment is often deemed lenient, especially in the shadow of mass incarceration’s long prison sentences.  A typical sentence for a misdemeanor commonly consists of probation and a fine.  The full collateral and informal consequences of that misdemeanor, however, will often be far more punitive.  Those consequences can include months in jail, either pretrial or as a consequence of failing to pay fines and fees; reduced employment and earning capacity triggered by arrest and conviction records; the loss of housing, public benefits, financial aid, and immigration status.  In other words, the full punitive consequences of a misdemeanor are far from lenient, and the extra-judicial consequences can so far outweigh the legal sentence that it hardly makes sense to refer to them as “collateral.”

Misdemeanors have traditionally received short shrift in the legal scholarship and in the public debate over criminal justice.  But this inattention is a mistake.  Misdemeanors make up 80 percent of U.S. criminal dockets.  Most convictions in this country are for misdemeanors—this is what our criminal system does most of the time to the most people.  For a brief overview of major issues and misdemeanor scholarship, you can take a look at this survey, Misdemeanors, 11 Ann. Rev. L. & Soc. Sci. 255 (2015).

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“Get to Work or Go to Jail”

Get-to-Work-or-Go-To-Final-copyA new report from the UCLA Labor Center with the snappy title of  “Get To Work or Go To Jail” describes how the criminal justice system may compromise employment opportunities in more ways than one, placing workers on community supervision or in debt at the mercy of employers.  Noah Zatz of the UCLA Law faculty, one of the report’s co-authors, summarizes the report’s conclusions as follows:

When many people consider work and the criminal justice system, they commonly focus on how difficult it is for people coming out of jail to find work. “Get to Work or Go To Jail: Workplace Rights Under Threat” goes further by exploring how the criminal justice system can also lock workers into bad jobs. Workers on probation or parole, facing criminal justice debt, or owing child support face a disturbing threat: get to work or go to jail. Because these workers face incarceration for being unemployed, the report finds that they cannot afford to refuse a job, quit a job, or to challenge their employers- and they can even be forced to work for free. This report identifies how the criminal justice system endows employers with this power.

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