DAUK Film Night: Racially Charged: America’s Misdemeanor Problem
An essential insight into the operation and impact of our criminal justice system
In collaboration with the DAUK Black Caucus
Dr. Alexandra Natapoff
Resources on the Issues
From Brave New Films
More About The Film
The Film Night
The Urgency of Criminal Justice Reform: film screening and discussion with Dr. Alexandra Natapoff,
Professor of Law, Harvard University
More than 13 million Americans are charged with misdemeanors every year. One in twenty Americans can lose money, time, freedom, their future opportunities and sometimes their lives for minor, negligible, usually victimless, offenses such as jaywalking, or failing to signal when driving.
They are disproportionately black, Hispanic and/or poor. The title of Professor Natapoff’s Punishment Without Crime: How Our Massive Misdemeanor System Traps the Innocent and Makes America More Unequal describes the issue in a nutshell. The phenomenon also clogs up courts and puts millions of people in jeopardy or behind bars. Because the courts are so overwhelmed, cases so speedily handled and legal advice inadequate, many innocent people are enticed into pleading guilty.
Misdemeanors play a major role in the perpetuation of racial and economic injustice, and yet most of us are unaware of the history, scale and impact of being charged with these ‘minor’ offenses.
This powerful documentary unpacks the issues clearly and emphatically – with shocking data brought to life with personal stories.
Professor Natapoff, the author of the book that inspired and laid the groundwork for the film, will join us for a discussion afterwards.
Some basic facts
- 13 million Americans are charged with misdemeanors every year.
- Eighty percent of all criminal court cases are for misdemeanors.
- In New York two-thirds of all criminal charges are for misdemeanors.
- Black Americans and people of color are disproportionately targeted for misdemeanors. For example, Blacks are 3 to 10 times more likely to be charged with jaywalking than their white counterparts.
- 3 out of 5 people in jail have not been convicted. They are there because they cannot afford bail.
- People convicted of misdemeanors not only face fines, bail costs, but also court costs, and often extra charges for ‘the costs’ of imprisonment, monitoring and tests. Thousands of jurisdictions rely on this income as a revenue stream.
History and role
There are hundreds of thousands of misdemeanor laws, many of them hundreds of years old. Post Civil War, many states utilized misdemeanors in their Black Codes to re-inscribe African Americans in servitude: charging them with minor offenses, with fines they could not pay, incarcerating them and then ‘leasing’ them for work.
Misdemeanor laws give the police considerable scope for ‘discretion’, and thereby social control and abuse. Out of the thousands of daily violations, police interpret what is ‘loitering’, whether to enforce jaywalking laws, or to stop a driver for ‘not signaling’ ….and against whom.
The popularity of policing based on interpretations of ‘broken -window theories’ began in the 1980s and was, for example, a key focus of Rudi Giuliani’s mayoralty in 1990s New York City. This proposed that ‘minor infractions’ convey a ‘disordered local environment’ that leads to more serious crime. This leads to an expansion of policing misdemeanors and adopting policies like ‘stop and frisk’ . The validity and efficacy of this theory and approach have been systematically critiqued, but we live with its legacy.
And finally, misdemeanor fines and cash bail can be utilized to prop up local revenue. In many cases, those convicted face charges for the ‘costs’ of the court, their imprisonment, and for monitoring, for testing; these charges often dwarf the fines due. Find out more about these financial issues.
This graphic and other resources on the Brave New Films website illustrates these financial issues.
About our speaker
Professor Alexandra Natapoff
Alexandra Natapoff is an award-winning legal scholar and criminal justice expert. She writes about criminal courts, public defense, plea bargaining, wrongful convictions, and race and inequality in the criminal system. Her book Punishment Without Crime: How Our Massive Misdemeanor System Traps the Innocent and Makes America More Unequal (Basic Books) inspired this film and reveals the powerful influence that misdemeanors exert over the U.S. criminal system. Her book Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice (NYU Press), won the ABA Silver Gavel Award Honorable Mention for Books. Her original work on criminal informants has made her an international expert.
Professor Natapoff is a 2016 Guggenheim Fellow, a member of the American Law Institute, and a graduate of Yale University and Stanford Law School. She has testified before Congress and numerous state legislative bodies; she has helped draft state and
federal legislation; her work appears frequently in judicial opinions as well as the national media. Prior to joining the academy, she served as an Assistant Federal Public Defender in Baltimore, Maryland.
Moderator for the discussion
Reverend Professor Keith Magee
Keith Magee is a public intellectual, theologian, and social justice scholar. He is Chair and Professor of Practice in Social Justice at Newcastle University School of History, Classics and Archaeology and a Senior Fellow in Culture and Politics at the University College London Culture and Centre on U.S. Politics. Equally essential, he is the Director of The Social Justice Institute which aims to integrate public policy and public theology to impact the whole of public life.
Dr. Magee served for five years as the founding director of the National Public Housing Museum in Chicago, IL. He successfully initiated and led their multi-million dollar capital campaign, which is committed to being a living cultural experience of social justice and human rights. He obtained this position after serving as the senior religious affairs advisor on the Obama for America campaign and senior director of the Museum of African American History in both Boston and Nantucket.
About the filmmaker
Robert Greenwald is the founder and President of Brave New Films, a a nonprofit film and advocacy organization whose work is distributed for free in concert with nonprofit partners and movements in order to educate and mobilize for progressive causes. We have screened several of their films – most recently, Suppressed 2020 and 2021 about voter suppression.
Disclaimer: The screening of this film does not constitute an endorsement or promotion of the film, nor of any views expressed therein or any association with The Film Committee, DAUK, Democrats Abroad or the Democratic Party. Screenings are solely conceived as educational activities: offering an opportunity for members to discuss issues.
Links to other organizations or publications imply neither endorsement of their policies nor any association with the Democratic Party or Democrats Abroad – UK.