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Why misdemeanor crime needs to be seriously reconsidered

The War on Crime. The War on Drugs. Dangerous felons. Truly violent offenders. Citizens at risk.

Such tags are evocative, and they have unquestionably colored the public’s perceptions regarding crime in the United States over many decades. Based on such wording and imagery, it is small wonder that legions of Americans think that a horde of marauders is at the door.

In fact, reality paints a quite different picture, and Greg Berman is quite happy to sketch it. Berman is the director of the nonprofit criminal justice reform group Center for Court Innovation, an organization that seeks to spotlight a higher level of truth concerning the state of crime across America.

Here is a core kernel of that truth, stresses the center: The overwhelming number of police-offender interactions relate to misdemeanor activities, not felonies.

Some of our readers in Missouri and elsewhere might respond to that bit of information with a shrug and a “So what?” query.

That’s a fair response, but questioners can expect to hear from justice insiders – including Berman – why it is vitally important to note the estimated 13 million-plus individuals that are annually charged with misdemeanor offenses in the United States.

Here’s one reason: They clog the justice system to a near-paralyzing degree. Additionally, they cost taxpayers untold billions of dollars each year.

And Berman stresses the “often disproportionately harsh” consequences they yield for individuals, legions of whom are nonviolent and even first-time offenders. People arrested for crimes like shoplifting, public intoxication and possession of token amounts of marijuana can be detained in jail for weeks. They can face heavy fines and court costs, lose jobs, fall behind in support duties, forgo future educational opportunities and more.

Berman and other reformers argue that “misdemeanor justice” urgently needs revision. Among other things, that must fundamentally feature enhanced police discretion to not arrest in every instance, coupled with increased instances of pre-court diversion to programs that emphasize treatment and rehabilitation rather than default lock-up strategies.

Change must occur, Berman says. He stresses that rethinking the country’s misdemeanor approach and process “is fundamental to the long-term health of our justice system.”

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