Everyone knows that a felony can be a life-changing event, that can result in all kinds of collateral consequences. But too few people take misdemeanors seriously enough. In North Carolina, misdemeanors can have significant consequences. For instance, the first criminal conviction of any sort (whether it’s a misdemeanor or a felony), will have life-altering consequences. It will affect a person’s ability to find or keep employment.
While people usually realize that a felony conviction is important, to often they regard a misdemeanor as an inconvenience. As a result, they don’t hire a lawyer, they handle it themselves, or they allow their child to have a public defender appointed in the matter. Given how overworked public defenders are, the results are understandable.
As this Slate article explains, a misdemeanor can have tragic consequences if not handled properly.
The misdemeanor machine has inspired a slew of epithets: “meet ‘em and plead ‘em lawyering,” “assembly line justice,” “cattle herding,” and “McJustice.” They reflect the reality that once people charged with misdemeanors get to court, they are pressured by judges, prosecutors, and their own lawyers into pleading guilty, often without knowledge of their rights or the nature of the charges against them. Bail makes it worse. Around 80 percent of defendants who have bail set cannot afford to pay it. Innocent defendants commonly plead guilty just to get out of jail. In this way, millions of Americans are punished without due process and learn the cynical lesson that, at least when it comes to minor offenses, law and evidence aren’t all that important.
Of course, there’s an argument that minor crimes may not actually matter that much. Guilty pleas typically result in a fine or probation, not prison. Given the deplorable lack of resources systemwide, perhaps minor crimes should indeed be handled in the quickest, cheapest way without counsel or a whole lot of due process. Indeed, petty offenders may well get out of jail sooner if they plead guilty. Moreover, it is widely assumed that these millions of defendants are actually guilty, so rushing them through the system probably won’t result in much of a miscarriage of justice. Maybe there are good reasons to take the quick-and-dirty approach.
Nevertheless, we shouldn’t write off misdemeanors.
The repercussions of a petty conviction can be anything but minor. These offenses are increasingly punished with hefty fines that low-income defendants cannot pay. A conviction of any kind can ruin a person’s job prospects. A petty conviction can affect eligibility for professional licenses, child custody, food stamps, student loans, and health care or lead to deportation. In many cities, a misdemeanor makes you ineligible for public housing.