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Racial disparity in misdemeanor sentencing

Misdemeanors account for about 80 percent of the criminal dockets in California and around the country. Misdemeanors are minor crimes punished by fines, probation or short jail sentences, but the way these sanctions are handed down has been criticized by civil rights groups and criminal justice researchers. Much has been written in recent years about sentencing disparities between white and black defendants in felony drug cases, but studies reveal that these imbalances are even more pronounced in misdemeanor cases.

After studying the outcomes of more than 30,000 misdemeanor cases adjudicated in Wisconsin over a seven-year period, a researcher found that white defendants were 75 percent more likely than black defendants to have the charges against them reduced, dismissed or dropped. The researcher also found that white defendants with no record of prior criminal activity were 46 percent more likely to have misdemeanor charges carrying a possible custodial sentence dropped than African American defendants with clean records.

Being charged with a misdemeanor can also have dire financial consequences for poor defendants. Individuals charged with misdemeanors are routinely presented with bills for services such as toxicology testing and DNA collection, and those unable to pay are sometimes incarcerated. This can lead to additional fees that push poor defendants even further into debt. Civil rights advocates say that many municipalities target poorer communities for misdemeanor enforcement just to raise revenue.

Poor defendants often feel that the criminal justice system is stacked against them, and the figures appear to support this view. Experienced criminal defense attorneys have an ethical duty to seek the best possible outcomes for their clients, and they may seek to have the penalties lowered in misdemeanor cases by bringing mitigating factors to the attention of prosecutors. Charges may be reduced or dropped when defendants have a full-time job, show genuine remorse or can rely on the support of friends and family.

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