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Small Crimes, Big Consequences: Why Fairness in Municipal Courts is so Important

Since there are 8 to 10 million misdemeanor cases in courts around the United States each year1, chances are good that you or someone you know may end up facing a misdemeanor charge at some point in their life.  Misdemeanor courts are a “window to the judicial branch for many people who do not normally have contact with the judicial system.”2 

While no one wants to be convicted, some might think a misdemeanor conviction is not that big a deal in the long run; it is just a one-time instance of shoplifting or suspended driver’s license or fighting, right?  Wrong.

Aside from the jail time and fees and fines that may be imposed as part of a misdemeanor sentence, there can be life-long consequences of a misdemeanor charge.  In connection with our work on criminal records issues, the ACLU has heard from numerous individuals denied housing or jobs because of a misdemeanor on their record.  This is happening even if the offense occurred many years ago and there are no recent arrests or charges.  Some of the most distressing cases involve military veterans who, suffering from PTSD and addiction, rack up misdemeanor charges before they are able to access services that assist them in turning their lives around.  Despite their rehabilitation, the consequences of their misdemeanor records continue to haunt them for years.  Misdemeanor convictions can also result in deportation, loss of gun rights, restrictions on international travel, and ineligibility for student loans, professional licenses, public housing and food assistance. 

In Washington state, misdemeanor cases are usually handled in municipal or district court.  In part because so many people are affected by misdemeanor cases and their consequences, the ACLU-WA is participating in a lawsuit challenging the shockingly deficient public defense systems in two municipal courts.  We are concerned that the public defenders were spending only half an hour on most of their cases, despite the serious consequences that can result.  A federal judge recently ruled the case can go forward against the cities of Mount Vernon and Burlington. The court also granted the case class-action status.

1 April 2009 report by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers “Minor Crimes, Massive Waste: The Terrible Toll of America’s Broken Misdemeanor Courts”

2 In re Michels, 150 Wn.2d 159, 174, 75 P.3d 950 (2003) (Washington Supreme Court)

Restorative justice

One of the most important things we can look into, as far as alternatives, is to look into forms of restorative instead of punitive justice, especially for minor misdemeanors.

This means that instead of trying to deter crime through punishment (which has been proven not to work), we should look for ways to bring victims and perpetrators together with a facilitation group, and work out ways to repair the harm and build compassion in the perpetrators.

The data on restorative justice shows that this is much more effective, and beneficial to our communities, in the long run.

Now this is something that is

Now this is something that is worth fighting for. I mean a misdemeanor is still breaking the law but when an 18 or 19 year old kid gets in a fight and they have to suffer the rest of their lives for that then something is wrong somewhere.


Misdemeanors in the United States are taken quite seriously in this blog for newbies and in some cases a little too seriously but the ACLU is working to change that.

misdemeanor consequences and restorative justice

I agree with the comment that restorative justice alternatives to punitive sanctions should be considered. Tribal courts have been using restorative justice alternatives for a long time and in many cases they work better for the offender and for the community. An important part of restorative justice principles is that the offender is reintegrated back into the community instead of being stigmatized for life.

Misdemeanors and jail time

When I was in jail, twice I was not sent to court, even though I had informed to PO the day before. I had an FTA, due to illness, called the court to reset the date. I was arrested the day before. The judge put a warrant out for me, instead of arresting me at home that day, the police came two weeks later. I ended up getting six months for havig so many FTAs. The jails need to be held accountable for not getting inmates to the court. It is not like they can get up and leave. Not only that the jail charged me $150.00 for medication that I needed, but did not send it with me. So how does one go about doing something about that?

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