Misdemeanors, Race, and a History of Injustice

The alleged use of a $20 counterfeit bill, selling loose cigarettes on a street corner, a broken brake light—think how many police encounters that ended with the killing of a Black person began with misdemeanor enforcement. If you want to shrink the role of police and the justice system, misdemeanors are the best place to start. Low-level, often “order maintenance,” charges make up 80 percent of criminal cases, and it’s here the justice system’s endemic racial disparities are at their most yawning.

In this conversation from February 2019, Alexandra Natapoff explains how the consequences of the sprawling misdemeanor system can trail someone for life. She calls that system “one of the great, under-appreciated engines of racial inequality in this country,” tracing its roots to the backlash against Reconstruction at the end of the Civil War.

A professor of law at the University of California, Irvine, Natapoff is the author of Punishment Without Crime: How Our Massive Misdemeanor System Traps the Innocent and Makes America More Unequal.

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