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Law Professor On How Misdemeanors 'Sweep' Blacks Into The Criminal System

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Alexandra Natapoff, a law professor at the University of California at Irvine, says an over-emphasis on low-level crimes like traffic violations and loitering disproportionately affect African Americans.
Jeff Gritchen/Digital First Media, Orange County Register via Getty Images

Alexandra Natapoff, a law professor at the University of California at Irvine, says an over-emphasis on low-level crimes like traffic violations and loitering disproportionately affect African Americans.

The police killings of George Floyd, Eric Garner and other black men and women began with allegations of a minor offense, such as passing a counterfeit $20 bill or selling individual, untaxed cigarettes.

Misdemeanors — these types of low-level criminal offenses — account for about 80% of all arrests and 80% of state criminal dockets, says Alexandra Natapoff, a law professor at the University of California at Irvine and author of Punishment Without Crime.

"It's surprising to many people to realize that misdemeanors — these low-level, often chump-change offenses that many of us commit routinely without even noticing it — make up the vast majority of what our criminal system does," Natapoff tells NPR's Ari Shapiro on All Things Considered.

"The offenses can include everything from traffic offenses to spitting, loitering, trespassing, all the way up to more serious offenses like DUI or many domestic violence offenses," she says. "It's ... the vast majority of ways that individuals interact with police."

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Natapoff says the misdemeanor system has "not gotten its fair share of blame" for the racism of the U.S. criminal justice system and how it disproportionately affects people of color.

"This is the beginning of how we sweep people of color, and African Americans in particular, into our criminal system," she says, through over-policing black neighborhoods, racial profiling and practices like stop-and-frisk.


Interview Highlights

On the argument that misdemeanors can be used as a way to discover more serious crimes

The fancy word for [that] is "broken windows" policing. There is at best contested, and at worst, negative evidence to indicate that's true. Instead, what we have learned is that over-policing misdemeanors is extraordinarily expensive. It costs us billions of dollars every year, it puts millions of people in jail, it overwhelms our criminal systems, our public defense apparatus. We are spending an incredible amount of social capital to double down on low-level offenses with little, if any, demonstrable upside and enormous downsides.

On how to move forward

I think the bottom line is to shrink the net. And we can shrink the net by shrinking our misdemeanor codes — that's the job of the legislature. We can shrink the misdemeanor net by reducing arrests, that can be a legislative action, decriminalization for example, it can be the decision by individual police departments, and it can be the decision by prosecutors to move away from the enforcement of these low-level offenses and focus on more serious offenses. And then we can punish less, we can arrest less, we can incarcerate less, we can fine less. It's zeroing in on that net and finding ways to shrink it.

Listen to the full interview at the audio link above.

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