The death of George Floyd while in police custody for trying to pass a counterfeit $20 bill is just one of countless examples of how misdemeanors, traffic violations and low-level crimes unduly impact minorities.
This has led one law school professor in California to author a new paper entitled “Punishment Without Crime.” In an interview with National Public Radio, she said: “The offenses can include everything from traffic offenses to spitting, loitering, trespassing, all the way up to more serious offenses like DUI or many domestic violence offenses. It’s … the vast majority of ways that individuals interact with police.”
She argues that these misdemeanors, which make up an estimated 80% of the court docket, have been overlooked as an example of systemic racism in the U.S. criminal justice system because it disproportionately affects people of color. It comes in the form of racial profiling for traffic stops, over-policing in historically black neighborhoods and practices like stop-and-frisk.
Guilty until proven innocent
The argument for this approach of so-called broken window policing is that law enforcement makes a traffic stop or arrests someone for possession of drugs. Still, the goal is to see if the individuals arrested are wanted for more serious crimes. It also builds up a rap sheet of petty offenses that incrementally become more serious as a repeat offender.
The cost to taxpayers
These charges tie up the court system and overburden public defenders. They also come at a cost – five million people go to jail each year, at least temporarily, and subsequently cost taxpayers billions of dollars annually to incarcerate them.
Decriminalizing these offenses
It would be up to Colorado’s legislature to change the misdemeanor codes, but did so in the past when it legalized recreational marijuana use. Decriminalizing these minor infractions has many upsides:
- There is little data to support the effectiveness of a zero-tolerance approach
- Allows law enforcement to focus on more serious offenses
- Reduces the cycle of repeat offenders who are in and out of jail
- Reduces the use of jail for offenders with substance abuse or mental health issues
Help is available
Hiring an experienced criminal defense attorney to handle minor infractions or low-level crimes may seem unnecessary, but it can help reduce or avoid jail time, significant fines or other penalties. It is also the proper response if the system seems to work against the person charged.