Taxpayers' millions down the drain - along with Constitution

A new report completed by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Defender Initiative at Seattle University School of Law says misdemeanor courts across the country are wasting money and eroding the rights of the accused.

The report recommends that states divert non-violent misdemeanor cases that do not threaten public safety to programs that are less costly to taxpayers and repay society through community service or civil fines.

"Minor Crimes, Massive Waste: The Terrible Toll of America's Broken Misdemeanor Courts," finds alarming problems that waste taxpayer money and compromise the reliability of the criminal justice system and public confidence in courts.

"Worse, the assembly line production of misdemeanor convictions is permanently disadvantaging huge swaths of the American public at incalculable societal cost," the report says.

"There are staggering problems, including depriving people of the right to counsel, pressuring defendants to plead guilty without ever talking to a lawyer and wasting time and money on minor offenses instead of focusing on crimes that endanger public safety," said Robert C. Boruchowitz, the lead researcher on the project and director of The Defender Initiative at Seattle University School of Law, which works to document problems in public defense systems and to advance efforts to improve public defense representation.

A press conference with Boruchowitz and NACDL President John Wesley Hall will be held at 10 a.m. Tuesday, April 28, at Seattle University School of Law, on the second floor of Sullivan Hall, 12th and Columbia. (Download video of the press conference)

"Misdemeanor courts are a black hole for justice and resources," Hall said. "I don't think there is a bigger waste of human potential and taxpayer money in the entire criminal justice system. Across the country, states need to implement more efficient enforcement policies for petty infractions—policies that 'pay off,' instead of 'adding up.'"

At the press conference, Hall and Boruchowitz will discuss problems the report identified in Washington State, as well as across the country. They also will review positive developments in Washington that can serve as a model for the rest of the nation.

Misdemeanors—crimes such as curfew violations, driving with a suspended license, loitering, possession of marijuana and open container laws—lead to expensive prosecutions on the taxpayers' dime. The volume of cases is staggering. A median state misdemeanor rate of 3,544 cases per 100,000 citizens indicates that taxpayers are burdened with paying the costs of more than 10 million prosecutions per year, the report said. There are more than 300,000 cases per year in Washington.

Courts are clogged, and many public defenders are handling hundreds more cases than they can ethically manage, spending just minutes preparing for each case. And some defendants are completely deprived of their constitutional right to counsel, putting states at risk for expensive lawsuits on top of the heavy financial burden of unnecessary incarceration costs.

"It is stunning how many people go without lawyers," Boruchowitz said. "And it is almost unbelievable how many cases some public defenders have. In four major cities—Atlanta, Chicago, Miami, and New Orleans—defenders have more than 2000 cases per lawyer per year. In New Orleans it is more than 18,000, which means that the lawyer has five minutes per client."

Boruchowitz added, "As a society, we need to spend our limited tax dollars wisely. There are a lot of cases—suspended driver license cases for example—that can be diverted from the criminal justice system with no risk to public safety."

He noted that by imposing fines and community service rather than jail time for the most minor offenses, Washington, and states everywhere, can immediately save millions of dollars on costly prosecutions.

An online version of the report (pdf) is available for download.

For more information, contact Professor Boruchowitz at 206.398.4151 or boruchor@seattleu.edu or John W. Hall at 501.960.0690 or forhall@aol.com.


Related Coverage:

Change needed in prosecuting minor crimes
The News Tribune
A Seattle University School of Law professor makes a good case for changing the way courts handle misdemeanors such as marijuana possession and driving with a suspended license.

Minor crime, massive waste
CNN Video
In Session's Jami Floyd comments on waste in the criminal justice system when processing misdemeanor cases.

Sullivan Hall west entrance