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Waste of Taxpayer Dollars on Misdemeanors Is Criminal, New Study Says

Prosecution of petty misdemeanor cases such as curfew violations or turnstile jumping is robbing taxpayers of millions of dollars each year, concludes the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers in its latest report, "Minor Crimes, Massive Waste." According to this press release summarizing the report, misdemeanor prosecutions are costing taxpayers and compromising defendants' Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel:

Misdemeanors -- infractions such as curfew violations, loitering and open container laws -- lead to expensive prosecutions on the taxpayers’ dime. The volume of cases is staggering. A median state misdemeanor rate of 3,544 cases per 100,000 citizens indicates that taxpayers are burdened with paying the costs of more than 10 million misdemeanor prosecutions per year, the report said.

With courts this clogged, public defenders and probation officers are forced to handle hundreds more cases than they can ethically manage, spending just minutes preparing for each case. And some defendants are completely deprived of their constitutional right to counsel, putting states at risk for expensive lawsuits on top of the heavy financial burden of unnecessary incarceration costs.

The NADCL report also found a sharp increase in the number of prosecutions of misdemeanor cases over the past three decades. Based on an estimated 12-state median misdemeanor rate of 3,544 per 100,000 residents by the National Center for State Courts in 2006, misdemeanor prosecutions more than doubled from 5 million in 1972 to 10.5 million in 2006. (According to, the U.S. population increased by less than 50 percent between 1972 and 2006.)

The NADCL report recommends that states treat non-violent misdemeanors as infractions which are diverted from the criminal system remedied through payment of fines or restitution to victims. Robert C. Boruchowitz, a law professor and lead researcher for the project told the Associated Press that the recommended changes will not require new legislation. In most cases they can be accomplished through education, as well as exercise of prosecutorial or judicial discretion, he says.

I have some qualms about Boruchowitz's willingness to leave reforms to the discretion of those within the criminal system. For starters, wasn't it abuse of prosecutorial discretion that created this problem to begin with? More importantly, in an economic downturn, with so many lawyers unable to find work, I doubt that prosecutors' offices would willingly scale back prosecutions, since that would reduce workload and potentially lead to layoffs. I'm not sure of the right solution but there's sure to be additional discussion on Capitol Hill: the NADCL will present the study's findings to a House Judiciary Committee hearing on June 4.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on April 29, 2009 at 10:53 AM | Permalink | Comments (1)


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