Punishment Without Crime provides a sweeping and revelatory new account of America’s broken criminal justice system from the perspective of the paradigmatic American crime-the lowly misdemeanor. While felony trials grab headlines, the petty offense system is far more representative of criminal justice as most Americans actually encounter it. Petty offenses make up 80 percent of state and local criminal dockets; over 13 million misdemeanor cases are filed every year, four times the number of felony cases. Misdemeanors are one of the largest and most unappreciated causes of our criminal system’s size and its harshness-and a crucial source of American inequality.
Misdemeanor cases are by definition “minor,” but their impact is not. Each year, the petty offense process sweeps millions of people from arrest to a guilty plea or conviction. In effect, police get to decide who will be convicted of minor crimes, simply by arresting them for offenses like driving on a suspended licenses, marijuana possession, disorderly conduct, and loitering. In thousands of low-level courts around the country, prosecutors do little vetting, most defendants lack lawyers, legal rules and evidence are often ignored, and judges process cases in minutes or even seconds. The consequences are serious and lasting: stigmatizing criminal records, burdensome fines, jail for those who can’t afford to pay bail or fees, and collateral effects including loss of jobs, housing, and benefits.
Punishment Without Crime offers an urgent new explanation for America’s racial and economic inequalities, showing starkly how misdemeanor arrests and prosecutions brand vast numbers of disadvantaged Americans as criminals and punish them accordingly. For the first time, prize-winning legal scholar Alexandra Natapoff illuminates the full scale, scope, and workings of the misdemeanor process, drawing on never-before-compiled data as well as revealing narrative examples. The misdemeanor system, she reveals, targets and stigmatizes racial minorities as “criminals,” exacerbates economic inequality by funding its own operation through fines and fees, and produces wrongful convictions on a massive scale.
For too long, misdemeanors have been ignored as petty. Reckoning with the misdemeanor machine is crucial to understanding America’s punitive and unfair criminal justice system and our widening economic and racial divides.