Why Misdemeanors Matter: Defining Effective Advocacy in the Lower Criminal Courts

96 Pages Posted: 23 Nov 2011 Last revised: 25 Jan 2012

See all articles by Jenny Roberts

Jenny Roberts

American University - Washington College of Law


Most individuals accused in our nation’s criminal courts are not charged with murder, rape, drug sales, or even less serious felonies. The vast majority of charges are in the lower courts, for misdemeanors such as marijuana possession, driving with a license suspension for failure to pay tickets, assault, disorderly conduct, or public intoxication. Misdemeanor adjudications have exploded in recent years, with one recent study estimating that the volume of misdemeanor cases nationwide has risen from five to more than ten million between 1972 and 2006. At the same time, violent crime and the number of felony cases across the country have decreased markedly.

A common misperception is that misdemeanor charges might lead to a night in jail and the punishment of going through the process - often requiring a number of court appearances - culminating in dismissal, deferred adjudication, or a quick guilty plea with community service, a fine, or perhaps some small amount of jail time. Yet the consequences of even the most “minor” misdemeanor conviction can be far reaching, and include deportation, sex offender registration, and loss of public housing and student loans. In addition, criminal records are now widely available electronically and employers, landlords, and others log on to check them. These “collateral consequences” of a misdemeanor conviction are often more dire than any direct criminal penalty.

What often stands between an individual and an avoidable misdemeanor conviction, with its harsh effects, is a good lawyer. Yet a profound crisis exists in the lower courts, brought about by a widespread lack of zealous representation for indigent people charged with misdemeanors. Many individuals charged with low-level crimes receive representation from defense attorneys with overwhelming caseloads, in a criminal justice system singularly focused on rapid finality in the large numbers of docketed cases. Despite this urgent situation, the body of scholarship on the right to effective representation and the indigent defense crisis has largely ignored misdemeanors. This Article describes how ineffective-assistance jurisprudence is undeveloped for misdemeanors and how published professional standards for defense advocacy have failed to address misdemeanors. There is almost no guidance about proper norms for this distinct category of cases. This Article calls for responses to the misdemeanor representation crisis from the three groups situated to make a difference in this area, based on their particular institutional competencies: the judiciary, the defender community, and professional organizations that draft standards for practice. Without proper administration, including effective defense representation, the current approach to mass misdemeanor processing and prosecution significantly impedes substantive justice for the individual, public perception of justice, and public safety.

Keywords: Misdemeanors, Collateral Consequences, Ineffective Assistance of Counsel, Sixth Amendment, ABA Criminal Justice Standards

Suggested Citation

Roberts, Jenny, Why Misdemeanors Matter: Defining Effective Advocacy in the Lower Criminal Courts. UC Davis Law Review, Vol. 45, 2011, American University, WCL Research Paper No. 2011-32, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1963788

Jenny Roberts (Contact Author)

American University - Washington College of Law ( email )

4300 Nebraska Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20016
United States

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