Jeffrey E. Johnston

Book examines inequality in misdemeanor system

Some people in Georgia assume that facing misdemeanor instead of felony charges means that the consequences of conviction will be relatively light. However, in a book called "Punishment Without Crime," former federal public defender Alexandra Natapoff looks at the high cost of misdemeanor convictions.

According to Natapoff, around 80 percent of all arrests and state dockets are misdemeanors. The sheer volume of cases leaves public defenders less able to pursue investigations or constitutional issues. Natapoff also points to a significant disparity in the results of plea bargains for white and black defendants. White defendants are more likely to have charges reduced, dismissed or dropped. The vast majority of misdemeanor cases are resolved with plea deals.

Fines associated with misdemeanors can be life-altering. People who cannot afford to pay fees may end up in debt or even in jail. A misdemeanor conviction can also affect a person's access to student loans, housing and job prospects, access to welfare, eligibility for certain licenses and immigration status. Natapoff makes several recommendations to address these issues. Among these are more decriminalization and less use of bail. Natapoff also argues that fewer people should be taken into custody in the first place and that judges should decline to prosecute more cases where being taken into custody acts as a punishment in itself.

People who are facing misdemeanors or felonies may want to talk to an attorney about defense and about whether a plea bargain or going to trial is the best strategy. An attorney might also consider whether a person's rights were violated during a search and seizure or some other part of the process of investigation. If the case does go to trial, eyewitness accounts or the handling of forensic evidence might be called into question.

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