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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Is suspension of driving privileges an effective way to collect unpaid fines?

realid-dlNo, according to a recent study of efforts to enforce monetary judgments in a Milwaukee municipal court and to a national organization with expertise in traffic safety. The Justice Initiative Institute reviewed non-criminal, municipal cases from 2008-2013 in which the Milwaukee court had ordered the detention of defendants for not having paid fines.

Not surprisingly, the report shows that most people who fail to pay fines have little if any income (a majority of those detained were unemployed). Therefore, although the prospect of sanctions might encourage payment by a population with greater financial resources, the use of incarceration for non-payment ends up costing the City of Milwaukee more than any additional amount of fines collected.

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