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Inequalities in misdemeanor sentencing

About 80 percent of the criminal cases adjudicated in Pennsylvania and around the country each year involve defendants who are charged with misdemeanors. These are less serious crimes that are usually punished with probation, fines or brief custodial sentences, but that does not mean that being convicted of a misdemeanor cannot be a life-changing experience. Civil rights advocates have long complained about the harsh treatment received by African-American defendants charged with narcotics felonies, but studies suggest that racial disparities are even greater in misdemeanor cases.

One such study was conducted recently by a researcher from Loyola Law School. After scrutinizing more than 30,000 Wisconsin misdemeanor cases, the researcher found that charges were dropped, dismissed or reduced for white defendants 75 percent more often than they were for black defendants. White offenders facing felony counts were also more likely to see the charges against them reduced to misdemeanors.

Being convicted of a misdemeanor can also plunge poor defendants into a downward spiral of debt. Offenders are commonly ordered to pay steep fines and expected to cover the costs of DNA collection, drug testing and other services, and defendants can face incarceration if they are unable to pay. This may add jail fees to an already unmanageable debt burden. Municipalities across the country have been accused by civil rights advocates of targeting poor neighborhoods for misdemeanor enforcement because penalties and late fees make the practice so lucrative.

In addition, poor defendants are sometimes frightened into accepting plea offers by prosecutors who warn them about the harsh penalties they could face if their cases go to trial. Experienced criminal defense attorneys may explain to their clients that this is a negotiating tactic, and they might also point out that prosecutors are generally reluctant to argue their cases before juries. Defense attorneys have a duty to seek the best possible outcome for their clients, and they may suggest eschewing a negotiated plea agreement when guilt beyond a reasonable doubt might be difficult to prove.

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