Inside the Courts: Mired in Misdemeanors

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The recent arrest of a Queens man for a string of sexual assaults on the Upper East Side has intensified the debate about recidivists in the criminal justice system. Kevin White, it was quickly disclosed, had been arrested 27 times on 57 different charges, of which he was convicted of one felony and 24 misdemeanors. Around the country, the arrest of recidivists routinely prompts calls for reform. And the reforms called for almost always take the same simplistic form: tougher laws, and harsher sentences.

And so it comes as no surprise that several New York politicians have tried to capitalize on the fear generated by Mr. White's crime spree, trotting out the usual scapegoats weak laws, plea bargains and liberals. Indeed, Governor Pataki, took the opportunity to push a proposal to elevate repeated misdemeanor convictions to felony level crimes.

In considering a proposal like the governor's it is critical to understand what exactly these misdemeanors are: mostly train hopping, pot smoking, shoplifting, and possession of a crack pipe, a tiny amount of drugs (typically less than $20 worth), a gravity knife or ninja throwing star. The incessant enforcement, of these misdemeanor laws, especially in poor neighborhoods, is the engine that drives criminal justice system. To understand the scale of the enforcement, consider this: in the first half of 2000, the New York City Police Department made 31,000 arrests just for possession of marijuana.

Consider too the impact of longer sentences on a criminal justice system already mired in misdemeanors. Even assuming the dubious notion that the public would view 3 or 4 year prison terms for recidivist fare beaters or pot smokers, actually imposing those sentences will be virtually impossible. Longer sentences reduce the incentive to plead guilty, and without an unprecedented expansion of court capacity say increasing the number of judges and courtrooms by an order of magnitude, accommodating the demand for such trials is inconceivable. Last year in the Bronx there were nearly 70,000 arrests, more than 60,000 of which were misdemeanors. Of them, 23 resulted in jury trials.

Is it really worth spending just over $5,000 dollars to jail someone for 45 days for stealing 26 dollars worth of meat, or 7 dollars worth of Advil? It happens nearly every day. And the thousand dollar a week figure is just the tip of the iceberg. It only includes the cost of incarceration without accounting for the enormous costs of enforcement not just police time (over 3 billion dollars last year) but judges, lawyers and courthouses too.

Misdemeanors crimes are notoriously hard to squelch. They are almost always crimes of necessity tragically resistant to deterrence. And in my experience, repeat misdemeanants are almost always desperately poor, usually drug addicted and often homeless. Sadly jail and prison stints do little or nothing to address these issues. Given the reality of these crimes and the lives of their perpetrators, it is time to rethink our entire policing strategy. Rather than yet another raft of laws designed to lock up poor people faster for longer, perhaps it really is time to leave pot-smokers in peace, and provide greater access to low cost food, shelter and transportation.

Oh, and as for Kevin White the guy the governor used as a poster boy for his tough new legislation turns out that a month after 4 witnesses identified him in lineups, he was exonerated by DNA.