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Book Review: Punishment without Crime: How Our Massive Misdemeanor System Traps the Innocent and Makes America More Unequal

March 20, 2019 in Economics

By Jonathan Blanks

Jonathan Blanks

Punishment without Crime: How Our Massive Misdemeanor System
Traps the Innocent and Makes America More Unequal

by Alexandra Natapoff
Basic Books (2018), 352 pages, $30

Although many of the criminal justice policy reforms proposed in
the past few years have dealt with “mass incarceration,”
particularly sentence reductions and alternatives to incarceration
for nonviolent felony offenses, most criminal convictions in the
United States are actually for misdemeanors — ranging from
serious crimes such as domestic battery and driving under the
influence of alcohol to less serious offenses like blocking the
sidewalk, failing to pay a parking ticket, and public intoxication.
Typically, misdemeanor convictions mean no jail time or are
punishable by no more than one year in jail. A perception thus
exists that infractions that bring fines or a few weeks in jail do
not merit reform efforts as much as crimes that result in decades
in prisons do. As a result, our misdemeanor system has largely
escaped thorough examination by reformers and politicians, and the
injustices in that system continue to affect millions of Americans
each year.

In her new book, Punishment without Crime: How Our Massive
Misdemeanor System Traps the Innocent and Makes America More
Unequal
, law professor Alexandra Natapoff pulls the curtain
back on our justice system to reveal frightening, punitive
bureaucracies that wreak havoc on the individuals caught up in the
morass of petty-offense enforcement and excessive policing.
Natapoff convincingly argues that state and local governments have
created machineries of injustice that undermine the most important
functions of criminal law by corroding the processes meant to
provide equal justice. That same machinery effectively extracts a
punitive tax through the criminal system from the people who can
least afford it. In places like Ferguson, Missouri — where a
woman was arrested twice, assessed more than $1,000 in fines and
fees, and served six days in jail all stemming from a single
parking ticket — the unnecessary cruelty in handling
misdemeanors poses severe risks to the legitimacy and effectiveness
of the criminal justice system.

The Basics of Crime and the Law

Perhaps the most fundamental purpose of criminal law is to pass
the condemnation of the community onto someone who has violated the
rights of one of its members and the moral foundations of that
community. Generally speaking, offenses within the community can be
described by one of two Latin phrases: malum in se (“wrong
in itself “) or malum prohibitum (roughly “wrong because
it’s prohibited”). These are not legal distinctions, but they are
useful in describing how we think about crime and other
wrongdoing.

Malum in se refers to offenses that are self-evidently
wrong. They violate basic rights or morals and include assault,
robbery, rape, and …read more

Source: OP-EDS

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