Justice Is Swift as Petty Crimes Clog Courts

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from The Wall Street Journal,

Cases Adjudicated in Minutes or Less, Often Without Lawyers.

or the millions of Americans charged each year with misdemeanor crimes, justice can be blindingly swift.

In Florida, misdemeanor courts routinely disposed of cases in three minutes or less, usually with a guilty plea, according to a 2011 National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers study. In Detroit, court statistics show, a district judge on an average day has over 100 misdemeanor cases on his or her docket—or one every four minutes. In Miami, public defenders often hardly have time to introduce themselves to their misdemeanor clients before the cases are over.

Years of aggressive policing tactics and tough-on-crime legislation have flooded the American court system with misdemeanor cases—relatively small-time crimes such as public drunkenness, loitering or petty theft. The state courts that handle such charges often resemble assembly lines where time is in short supply, according to judges and lawyers who work in the courts. Many poor defendants, despite their right to court-appointed legal counsel, don’t get lawyers, and those who do often receive scant help in the rush to resolve cases.

udge Thomas Boyd, who handles misdemeanor cases in Ingham County, Mich., said recently he sometimes finds himself arguing with defendants who seem too eager to admit wrongdoing without consulting a lawyer. “I have young black men coming in to plead guilty, but I start questioning them and it’s pretty clear that they don’t believe they committed a crime,” yet don’t think they have any chance of being found innocent, he said. When pressed on why they are willing to plead, he said, they reply: “‘That’s how it works, isn’t it?”

Judge Boyd said he routinely tells defendants about the possible consequences of a guilty plea, including fines, jail time, loss of a driver’s license and difficulty traveling outside the U.S. For some young defendants, he said, he explains that a guilty plea means they will have to check the “yes” box on job applications that ask—as many do—whether they have ever been convicted of a crime.

Over the past 20 years, U.S. authorities have made more than a quarter billion arrests, and they add 12 million more each year. Crime rates have fallen sharply over that period. The arrests have left nearly one of every three American adults on file in the FBI’s master criminal database.

Misdemeanor charges, which typically carry fines or jail terms of less than a year, account for about 70% to 80% of criminal cases annually, according to data from the National Center for State Courts, a Williamsburg, Va., clearinghouse for court-related information. Felonies such as murder, rape and armed robbery, and miscellaneous criminal traffic and appellate cases, make up the rest.

A 1972 Supreme Court decision established that a misdemeanor defendant facing a potential jail sentence has the right to a lawyer. If the defendant can’t afford one, the government must provide one. Subsequent Supreme Court decisions have further defined and expanded that right to counsel.

What that means for the nation’s crowded courts is a topic of debate among judges around the country. Jean Hoefer Toal, chief justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court, said courts “simply don’t have the funding” to supply lawyers in every misdemeanor case envisioned by the U.S. Supreme Court. She acknowledged her state can’t always do so, and that chief justices from other states have told her the same.

Some jurists say many misdemeanor defendants simply want to get the matter over with. “If counsel were appointed on every rinky-dink misdemeanor case,” said Judge Jeffrey Middleton of St. Joseph County, Mich., the public’s cost for indigent defense would soar and “it would slow courts to a halt.”

Government and academic researchers estimate that about one in every four misdemeanor defendants facing jail time isn’t represented by a lawyer. The Texas Indigent Defense Commission, a state body, estimated that 27% of the nearly 560,000 misdemeanor defendants in that state in fiscal-year 2013 didn’t have a lawyer.

The 2011 study by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers of about 1,600 misdemeanor cases in Florida found over one-third of defendants didn’t have a lawyer at their court arraignment. Of those, 80% pleaded guilty or no contest at that time—two pleas that are effectively identical—compared with 64% of those with court-appointed counsel and 61% of those who hired lawyers. The hearings took less than three minutes to complete, on average, with more than one-third finished within one minute, the study found.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in a recent interview that the “crushing caseloads” in misdemeanor courts have created “almost like an assembly-line mentality” for moving defendants quickly through the system. Individuals can too easily be denied their constitutional rights, particularly the right to counsel, he said, and “end up unnecessarily imprisoned.”

In Providence, R.I., municipal court, where certain misdemeanor cases are handled, indigent defendants weren’t getting court-appointed counsel in instances where a jail sentence was possible, said city solicitor Jeffrey Padwa, whose office prosecutes municipal-court cases.

Some jurisdictions are coming up with novel solutions to reduce the crush of misdemeanor cases. Spokane, Wash., has taken out of criminal courts many misdemeanor cases relating to driving with a suspended license. Under the program, people can get back their licenses while paying off tickets over time, said city prosecutor Justin Bingham.

Philadelphia and New York City moved recently to end arrests for possession of small amounts of marijuana, opting instead for fines as low as $25 and $100, respectively. About 4,000 people are arrested each year in Philadelphia for small-time marijuana possession, while New York has made about 24,000 such arrests this year, through early November.

Officials in both cities said the moves would free up law-enforcement resources and help minority communities hard hit by the arrests. For people with criminal records, said Councilman James Kenney, who sponsored the Philadelphia legislation, “there are very few options available to them except for bad things.”

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