Oh, It’s Just A Misdemeanor
I have been in many courtrooms over the years and heard the phrase, “Uh, it’s just a misdemeanor….” I must confess that thought has crossed my mind on more than one occasion. However, all of us should rethink that notion with respect to our clients by critically and analytically looking at the consequences facing clients as a direct and indirect result of misdemeanor convictions. Here is a non exhaustive list of reasons:
- Nearly everyone commits misdemeanors if we include minor traffic violations which are defined as misdemeanors in many jurisdictions. We must recognize that if we were the one charged, it would be among the more important things on our minds. Our clients should receive no less attention because it is they who are charged and not us.
- For poor people charged with misdemeanors with money or property bail attached, release costs and monitoring conditions are devastating to them, their families and lives.
- Many poor people interact with the criminal court system at the misdemeanor level nationwide.
- Appropriate, timely, zealous, and effective representation of poor people who charged with misdemeanors can mean the difference between keeping and losing jobs, housing, children and other treasured family and friends, and access to being free from pretrial incarceration and included in the lives of their communities.
- Holistic representation by caring defenders with input from social workers and mental health professionals assists in a reduction in further run interaction with the criminal court system for these clients.
- Excessive fines and fees imposed on poor people convicted of misdemeanors leads to many repeated reports to probation and the courts. Our clients face an endless cycle of court appearances, probation appointments, debt, threats of loss of freedom, and embarrassment. They may also feel that the system, of which we are a part, just doesn’t care about them and their lives.
- Many poor people charged with misdemeanor offenses are under 30, suffer from mental illness, may be homeless, come from marginalized communities, have limited education, or some combination of these and other poverty issues and may not have access to resources to help them through this process without caring defenders.
- When systemic resources aren’t provided by the courts due to funding priorities, or because the case is a misdemeanor, or the client is unable to access resources in a timely and appropriate manner, what was a minor criminal charge can escalate into a larger problem for the client and the community.
- The misdemeanors count as convictions with all of the weight attaching to convictions. It is up to our clients to make this informed decision and up to us to support the decisions they make. Informed decisions mean accurate advice of all of the consequences of a misdemeanor conviction.
- If we, as public defenders, represent all of our clients with the same concern regardless of the level of charge, we do not dismiss our clients charged with a misdemeanor offense to the notion of “Oh, it’s just a misdemeanor”.
- If as public defenders, we do not stand up for our clients charged with misdemeanors and discuss with the other stakeholders the impact of misdemeanors on the lives of our clients, how will we change the mindset in the courtrooms of “Oh, it’s just a misdemeanor” and misdemeanor convictions do not matter?
- If we, as public defenders, do not change this dialog with the other stakeholders about the real importance and weight of misdemeanor convictions, how will we effectively advocate within the system for the important resources needed for these clients in the face of the other priorities of the system?
The next time we each have a client who charged with a misdemeanor or offered a reduction to a misdemeanor to speed up the process, our challenge, as defenders of the clients, is to intentionally stop the internal and external dialog about the low level of the client’s case based on crime charged or offer made. Instead, we must consider the level of importance to the client rather than the system. Then, express that level of concern to those who need to hear it to make a difference for each client regardless of the severity of the charge or offer made to expedite the process. This is what our clients, all of them, deserve. This is what our clients are guaranteed and what is required of us under the 6th Amendment. We must remember it is always more than “just a misdemeanor” to those whose lives the conviction impacts.
The opinions expressed herein are those of the author and not of the Georgia Public Defender Council.