A revelatory account of the misdemeanor machine that unjustly brands millions of Americans as criminals.
Punishment Without Crime offers an urgent new interpretation of inequality and injustice in America by examining the paradigmatic American offense: the lowly misdemeanor. Based on extensive original research, legal scholar Alexandra Natapoff reveals the inner workings of a massive petty offense system that produces over 13 million cases each year. People arrested for minor crimes are swept through courts where defendants often lack lawyers, judges process cases in mere minutes, and nearly everyone pleads guilty. This misdemeanor machine starts punishing people long before they are convicted; it punishes the innocent; and it punishes conduct that never should have been a crime. As a result, vast numbers of Americans -- most of them poor and people of color -- are stigmatized as criminals, impoverished through fines and fees, and stripped of drivers' licenses, jobs, and housing.
For too long, misdemeanors have been ignored. But they are crucial to understanding our punitive criminal system and our widening economic and racial divides.
A Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2018
Law professor Natapoff (Snitching) paints a picture of large-scale judicial and police misconduct in this expos of the misdemeanor system. Drawing on local data from across the U.S. and anecdotes, she shows that many defendants in misdemeanor cases have committed no crimes, are given no legal counsel and no jury trial, and have their fates decided in three minutes or less. Furthermore, she argues, many misdemeanor arrests are unfair: poverty is criminalized and race makes certain people more likely than others to be arrested; in Urbana, Ill., for example, 91% of those ticketed for jaywalking were black despite only 16% of the population being black. Next, grievously overburdened public defenders, daily jail fees that are nigh unpayable for impoverished defendants, and financial incentives for judges to convict lead to overly high rates of conviction. This can have a steep cost for those affected: in addition to driving people further into poverty, a single low-level conviction can render a person ineligible to work for many employers. Intelligently written, tightly argued, and often heartbreaking, Natapoff's account is a worthy companion to Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow.