Misdemeanor cases often marked by inequality

When people in Texas think about criminal cases, the first that come to mind are often felony trials. However, misdemeanors account for around 80 percent of all the criminal cases that fill American courts, according to one author. Misdemeanors are typically low-level offenses that carry sentences that do not exceed one year of incarceration. While felony cases are often the most widely reported, misdemeanors comprise the vast majority of arrests, with 13 million new cases filed every year.

Unfortunately, the relatively low penalties attached to misdemeanor cases may mean that they receive less attention, even when fundamental rights are at stake. Public defenders, prosecutors, and judges are often burdened by massive case loads, and misdemeanors receive the least attention. This is especially true in cases where people are represented by public defenders who are pressured against pursuing constitutional arguments in misdemeanor cases. As a result, the reliability of convictions and access to justice may be significantly worse for misdemeanor defendants.

Misdemeanor cases rarely go to trial, and they are usually resolved through plea bargains. Studies have found that the racial disparities long associated with plea agreements are particularly jarring in these cases. White defendants in misdemeanor cases were almost 75 percent more likely than black defendants to have the charges against them dismissed, dropped or reduced. The system can have a particularly negative effect on poor people, as misdemeanor sentencing often relies heavily on the use of fines and fees. As a result, people facing minor charges may wind up behind bars because of their inability to pay them.

People who are convicted of criminal charges, even misdemeanors, may face severe consequences. A criminal defense attorney can help challenge police and prosecution assertions and work to secure a favorable outcome.

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