Informed Misdemeanor Sentencing
44 Pages Posted: 14 Mar 2018
Date Written: March 12, 2018
There is no such thing as a low-stakes misdemeanor. The misdemeanor sentence itself, which can range from time served to up to twelve years in some jurisdictions, is often significant. But the collateral consequences of such a conviction can be far worse, affecting a person’s work and home lives for decades, and sometimes for the rest of their lives. As a result of misdemeanor convictions, defendants can be fired from their jobs, barred from future employment in many fields, deported, evicted from public housing together with their entire family, and refused housing by private landlords.
Under most theories of punishment, a judge at sentencing does not simply look back to the crime and its circumstances but also looks forward at the defendant’s future. Judges imposing sentences in misdemeanor cases should focus forward much more heavily than back, and should consider the collateral effects of a misdemeanor conviction on the defendant’s future. Viewed through that more expansive lens, and given the broad discretion of judges in misdemeanor sentencing and lack of existing guidance for that discretion, the sentencing function of judges in misdemeanor cases is in serious need of study and reform.
This Article’s goal is two-fold. First, it contextualizes judicial responsibility for misdemeanor sentencing in the realities of the lower criminal courts, where a number of structural and systemic barriers — including violations of the right to counsel and pressures on judges to move cases along rapidly — affect but do not excuse the way judges go about sentencing. Second, the Article calls for judges to undertake “informed misdemeanor sentencing,” which draws on principles of proportionality and parsimony in determining the just sentence in a misdemeanor case. Accordingly, judges should explicitly acknowledge the many serious collateral consequences an individual suffers after any penal sanction, and incorporate those into the sentencing process to ensure that punishment is proportionate. In addition, judges should bring parsimony into the sentencing process by making more use of deferred adjudication as well as expungement and related mechanisms for mitigating the unintended effects of a misdemeanor conviction.
Keywords: Misdemeanor, Sentencing, Collateral Consequences, Criminal Justice, Lower Criminal Court
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