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).