The Scale of Misdemeanor Justice
47 Pages Posted: 26 Mar 2018
Date Written: March 21, 2018
This Article seeks to provide the most comprehensive national-level empirical analysis of misdemeanor criminal justice that is currently feasible given the state of data collection in the United States. First, we estimate that there are 13.2 million misdemeanor cases filed in the United States each year. Second, contrary to conventional wisdom, this number is not rising. Both the number of misdemeanor arrests and cases filed have declined markedly in recent years. In fact, national arrest rates for almost every misdemeanor offense category have been declining for at least two decades, and the misdemeanor arrest rate was lower in 2014 than in 1995 in almost every state for which data is available. Third, there is profound racial disparity in the misdemeanor arrest rate for most—but not all—offense types. This is sobering if not surprising. More unexpectedly, perhaps, the variation in racial disparity across offense types has remained remarkably constant over the past thirty-seven years; the offenses marked by the greatest racial disparity in arrest rates in 1980 are more or less the same as those marked by greatest racial disparity today. Our findings confirm that the scale of misdemeanor justice is vast, but contradict the notion that it is expanding. In addition, we document a surprising degree of uniformity in misdemeanor trends. Such consistency suggests that the misdemeanor system may have a deeper and more uniform structure than we anticipated.
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