A series of reports over the last few weeks have shed more light on the increasingly predatory enforcement of misdemeanors across the country, and how this trend disproportionately hurts the poor. The first report comes from an area familiar to readers of The Watch — St. Louis County, Missouri. It was published by the Police Executive Research Forum. Among the key findings:

  • Policing is extremely fragmented: St. Louis County contains a patchwork of police departments, many of which have jurisdiction over very small areas. About one-third of the municipalities in the County that have a police department occupy less than one square mile. This has led to confusion and distrust among residents, who often feel targeted and harassed by police officers and the municipal court system.
  • Many police departments have inappropriate goals: In many municipalities, policing priorities are driven not by the public safety needs of the community, but rather by the goal of generating large portions of the operating revenue for the local government. This is a grossly inappropriate mission for the police, often carried out at the direction of local elected officials.
  • The “muni shuffle” is unprofessional: Police standards, training, pay, and professionalism vary dramatically throughout the region. Of particular concern is the so-called “muni shuffle,” in which police officers who are fired or allowed to resign because of disciplinary or performance issues in one department are quickly hired by another department, because it can be less expensive to hire an experienced (albeit compromised) officer than to recruit and train a new officer.

These criticisms have now been reiterated in several forums, by several different organizations. Perhaps most damning, all of this attention on petty offenses has distracted the area’s police departments from fighting crime. Despite the saturation of police departments, the report found elevated crime rates in the area, and that violent and property crime cost about $1,187 per resident. In other words, the people who live in St. Louis County aren’t being protected by the police, the police are preying on them. And they’re doing at the instruction of these local governments.

Up next, a well-reported three-part series on policing and the poor by the CBS affiliated in Miami. The report focuses on a city “crime suppression team” that’s supposed to improve the quality of life in poor areas. This excerpt is from part three.

During its five-month investigation into the Miami-Dade Police Department’s Crime Suppression Team, CBS4 News reviewed every arrest the officers from the South District Station made in 2014.
The results: CBS4 News found a unit whose actions resulted in the arrests of hundreds of individuals – mostly young black males – for petty offenses. Even more troubling, the arrests failed to result in a reduction in crime in the South District. In fact, crime went up in most of the major categories, according to records obtained by CBS4 News.
CBS4 News also found that most of the cases made by the Crime Suppression Team fell apart once they made it to court. Overall, the Crime Suppression Team had a conviction rate of just eleven percent.
And of the 245 individuals arrested for marijuana – only two ended up being convicted. In addition to those two convictions, 80 individuals – or one third of those arrested – accepted what is known as a “withhold of adjudication.”
“Withhold of adjudication is something that exists only in Florida and it’s kind of a legal fiction,” said Miami-Dade County Public Defender Carlos Martinez. “It’s a conviction, a judge has made a finding of guilt, but we are going to say you are not really a convicted person, but in fact you are.  Immigration does not look at the difference between a withhold or no withhold, they look at it as a conviction. And most employers that I’ve talked to about these issues, and they see withhold, to them it looks like a conviction. They don’t see the difference.”
Most of the people appearing in court don’t realize this because they are not represented by an attorney, Martinez said. “Seventy percent of the people in Dade County go to court without an attorney.”
In Florida, if prosecutors are not requesting jail time for a crime, the person charged doesn’t have the right to have a public defender appointed to represent them.

So once again we have police in predominantly poor, predominantly black communities making “broken windows” and “quality of life” arrests for petty offenses. This is saddling large percentages of these communities with burdensome fines and debilitating arrest records, it’s poisoning the relationship between the police agencies and the communities they’re supposed to be serving and it’s all doing little to nothing to make these communities any safer. This particular anecdote is just chilling:

On August 27th, a group of plain clothes Miami-Dade police officers pulled onto a dead-end street in South Dade and arrested three young black men after finding a single marijuana cigarette on the ground near where the trio was standing.
Two of the men were released on the spot after being given notices to appear in court. The third person, however, was placed in handcuffs and loaded into one of the unmarked cars.
Why did the officers take 21-year-old Tannie Burke? According to Burke, the officers were angry because Burke’s stepfather, Marvin Armstrong, was videotaping the arrest as well as berating the officers and accusing them of racial profiling.
Burke claims instead of taking him to jail or to the South District police station, the officers took Burke for a ride, during which they repeatedly complained about his stepfather’s actions.
“They said, `your step father got a lot of mouth. You know we don’t like that,’” Burke recalled.
After twenty minutes, Burke said they dropped him off on the edge of some darkened farmland miles from his house.
“They put me off somewhere in Goulds,” Burke recounted. “There were no street lights and no houses. It was just dark.”
Burke’s allegations would be troubling by themselves. They become startling, however when one detail is added: Burke is legally blind.

It’s the sort of sadism you get when armed, untouchable public officials are taught to dehumanize the people they serve.

This week, the National Association of Public Defenders issued a 10-page statement calling for the reform of these practices, including treating fines as civil cases, not criminal cases; providing legal representation to indigent defendants in municipal cases; factoring in a defendant’s income and financial situation before treating nonpayment of a fine as a crime; and ending the monetary bond.

There is some good news on this issue — or at least some movement. Yesterday, the Senate held a hearing titled, “Protecting the Constitutional Right to Counsel for Indigents Charged with Misdemeanors.” More surprising: The hearing was called by conservative Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa). As Andrew Cohen writes at The Marshall Project, much of the movement on this issue is, in fact, coming from the right. And that’s particularly encouraging.

The three witnesses selected by committee Republicans are expected to testify in favor of reform. The chief justice of the Iowa Supreme Court, Mark Cady, for example, just last month issued a brave and important right-to-counsel ruling. Another Republican witness, Bob Boruchowitz, is a former public defender who produced a seminal report warning about the problem in 2009. These men (and the other witnesses) aren’t coming to Washington to tell the Senate that the status quo is working or acceptable.
It certainly isn’t acceptable to a growing number of conservatives beyond Washington, who have begun to loudly sound the call for reform in misdemeanor cases, pitching it to their own constituents as a fundamental matter of governance that dovetails with the broader conservative pushback against “overcriminalization.” Last fall, for example, Koch Industries partnered with the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers to help train public defenders. The money, Charles Koch said at the time, was designed “to make the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of an individual’s right to counsel a reality for all Americans…”
That’s a theme echoed by Tim Lynch, the Cato Institute’s criminal justice director, who said via email: “If more and more Americans are vulnerable to criminal prosecution, and they are, it makes sense to take steps to help the most vulnerable, the indigent.”
Even prosecutors seem to understand that something dramatic has to change in these misdemeanor courts. “It’s the perfect example of overcriminalization,” David LaBahn, president of the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, told me Tuesday. “Why does everything have to be a crime?” LaBahn says there is much work to be done to reform “all parts of the system,” including additional resources for prosecutors and judges. Who has the worst deal of all in misdemeanor cases? LaBahn says it’s the working poor who make just enough money not to be indigent.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Democrats sought to avoid being portrayed as “soft on crime” by trying to outflank the GOP in punitiveness. It was a race to mass incarceration. Imagine if in the 2010s we see the same sort of competition, but in reverse, where defensive Republicans seeking to avoid being labeled indifferent to the poor try to outflank the Democrats by moving to end the criminalization of poverty.

One can dream.