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Racial disparities in misdemeanor sentencing

About 80 percent of the people arrested each year in New Jersey and around the country are charged with misdemeanors, according to figures from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The vast majority of these cases are resolved by plea agreements rather than trials. Unfortunately, this often leads to harsher treatment of African American defendants.

Researchers and civil rights advocates who have studied misdemeanor sentencing have discovered that white defendants are 75 percent more likely than black defendants to see the charges against them dismissed, dropped or reduced. They also claim that the fines and fees commonly handed down in these cases unfairly punish poor defendants. Those charged with misdemeanors are routinely ordered to cover the costs of supervision, DNA collection and toxicology testing. If the defendant lacks the means to pay, they’re often incarcerated.

A misdemeanor conviction can sometimes be the beginning of a downward spiral for poor defendants. Those who are unable to pay their fines can be pushed further into debt by additional court and jail fees. According to advocacy groups, many municipalities rely on the money generated by minor misdemeanor cases to cover a large part of their law enforcement and criminal justice budgets. This has been compared to a form of regressive tax that places an undue burden on the poor.

Being convicted of even a minor misdemeanor can make it more difficult to rent an apartment or find a job. Experienced criminal defense attorneys may seek to mitigate these consequences by pointing out mitigating circumstances to prosecutors during plea negotiations. Examples of mitigating factors include a previously unblemished criminal record, full-time gainful employment, genuine remorse and the support of family and friends.



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