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Misdemeanor cases clog courts and burden poor defendants

Misdemeanor charges in Minnesota may not impose harsh penalties like felonies, but they still carry serious consequences for many people, such as imprisonment for up to one year and fines. A legal scholar and author who has researched the effects of misdemeanor convictions said that court fees, fines and short-term incarceration often lead to job loss as well as restrictions on housing, student loans, welfare benefits and professional licensing.

After studying crime statistics from the FBI and other sources, she estimated that 80 percent of criminal dockets involve misdemeanor cases. This amounts to roughly 13 million cases annually nationwide. The huge volume overwhelms public defenders with limited resources and forces them to avoid litigating constitutional violations. She concluded that the system often makes the accuracy of misdemeanor convictions questionable and punishes innocent people.

Plea deals result in most misdemeanor cases, and the scholar identified pervasive racial disparities in misdemeanor sentences. White defendants had a 75 percent greater chance of avoiding imprisonment compared to black defendants. Poor people, in general often, had to endure long waits in jail before seeing a judge because they could not pay court fees.

Reforms that appear successful in alleviating these outcomes include decriminalization, fewer arrests and not charging bail. Additionally, easing pressure on prosecutors to pursue cases against low-level criminal accusations could prevent punishment for alleged offenses of minor significance.

After an arrest, a person could seek personal legal representation from a criminal defense attorney instead of hoping for fair treatment within the criminal justice system. A lawyer might advocate for release without bail and question the need to prosecute accusations that only amount to misdemeanor offenses. An attorney might succeed in gaining a case dismissal when evidence is weak or at least convince a prosecutor to drop charges that could result in jail time.

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