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Minor Crimes, Massive Waste: The Terrible Toll of America's Broken Misdemeanor Courts

  • Organization: National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers
  • Document Type: Report
  • Date Created: Wednesday, April 15, 2009
  • Submitted: Monday, June 01, 2009
  • Attachment(s): LINK

The explosive growth of misdemeanor cases is placing a staggering burden on America's courts. Defenders across the country are forced to carry unethical caseloads that leave too little time for clients to be properly represented. As a result, constitutional obligations are left unmet and taxpayers' money is wasted. NACDL's comprehensive examination of misdemeanor courts, including a review of existing studies and materials, site visits in seven states, an internet survey of defenders, two conferences, and a webinar, demonstrated that misdemeanor courts across the country are incapable of providing accused individuals with the due process guaranteed them by the Constitution. As a result, every year literally millions of accused misdemeanants, overwhelmingly those unable to hire private counsel, and disproportionately people of color, are denied their constitutional right to equal justice. And, taxpayers are footing the bill for these gross inefficiencies.

Legal representation for misdemeanants is absent in many cases. When an attorney is provided, crushing workloads often make it impossible for the defender to effectively represent her clients. Counsel is unable to spend adequate time on each of her cases, and often lacks necessary resources, such as access to investigators, experts, and online research tools. These deficiencies force even the most competent and dedicated attorneys to engage in breaches of professional duties. Too often, judges and prosecutors are complicit in these breaches, pushing defenders and defendants to take action with limited time and knowledge of their cases. This leads to guilty pleas by the innocent, inappropriate sentences, and wrongful incarceration, all at taxpayer expense.

This report explains, in depth, these and other problems observed in misdemeanor courts and offers recommendations for reform, while highlighting best practices from across the country. The recommendations include:

  1. Divert misdemeanors that do not impact public safety to penalties that are less costly to taxpayers.
  2. Reduce pressure on defendants to plead guilty,
    particularly at first appearance.
  3. Enforce ethical obligations of all participants
    in misdemeanor adjudications.
  4. Provide counsel for any defendant facing the
    possibility of incarceration.
  5. Provide public defenders with the resources necessary
    to effectively represent their clients.

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