As the Supreme Court recently acknowledged in Lafler v. Cooper (2012), American criminal justice “is for the most part a system of pleas, not a system of trials.” Nowhere is that statement truer than in the lower courts, where millions of misdemeanor arrests are resolved, or, to use the lingo of the criminal court, “disposed of,” without even a whiff of a trial.
In a provocative New York Times Op-Ed, “Go to Trial: Crash the Justice System,” Michelle Alexander raised the prospect of organizing people to refuse to plea bargain. Professor Jenny Roberts takes a cue from Alexander and manages to be even more rebellious. In Crashing the Misdemeanor System, 70 Wash. & Lee L. Rev. 1089 (2013), she urges much more specifically that defense attorneys focus their energy on taking down extant misdemeanor systems that are best characterized as guilty plea mills.
Roberts argues that “the most minor misdemeanor conviction has serious implications for so many people,” and bemoans the fact that nevertheless most misdemeanors are given short shrift by all institutional players — judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys alike. Her article is a clarion call for defense attorneys to reimagine, refocus and reinvigorate their misdemeanor practice, especially in an era of massive arrests for minor crimes made popular by Broken Windows, or quality-of-life, policing.