There is a growing awareness that the consequences of a misdemeanor arrest or conviction have become exponentially more serious in recent years. We also know that the misdemeanor system is enormous, and that its very size makes it particularly susceptible of abuse. Yet we have very little reliable information about how many people in the United States have a misdemeanor record. A new research report by Professors Megan Stevenson and Sandra Mayson begins to fill this gap, in the process challenging the conventional wisdom that the misdemeanor system is expanding.
Based on “the most comprehensive national-level analysis of misdemeanor criminal justice that is currently feasible,” the report reaches the surprising conclusion that both the number of misdemeanor arrests and cases filed each year have “declined markedly” in recent years. At the same time, unsurprisingly, it concludes that there is “profound racial disparity” in misdemeanor arrest rates for most offense types, and that this disparity has “remained remarkably constant” over almost four decades. While the report confirms current perceptions about the scale of misdemeanor justice and its disparate racial impact, its fascinating findings of “declining arrest and case-filing rates present a challenge for misdemeanor scholarship.”