One Minnesota man was pulled over for expired car registration. Another man was stopped on suspicion of selling loose cigarettes in New York City. A Missouri teen was questioned for jaywalking. A Baltimore man was arrested for carrying a knife.
All were Black men who died in the last couple of years after confrontations with police over minor crimes called misdemeanors.
The most infamous incident was George Floyd, who died during an arrest for passing a counterfeit $20 bill at a Minneapolis grocery store. Derek Chauvin, a white Minneapolis who knelt on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes after he was handcuffed and lying face down, recently was convicted for his murder.
In a recent virtual event, local and state justice officials discussed a new documentary, “Racially Charged: America’s Misdemeanor Problem,” which addresses these cases. Available online for free viewing, the movie, directed by Robert Greenwald and presented by the nonprofit Brave New Films, examines the devastating effects of the misdemeanor justice system on minority communities.
Many instances of police violence that prompted recent racial justice protests started with alleged low-level misdemeanor infractions like jaywalking, spitting, passing counterfeit bills, selling loose cigarettes and having a broken tail light.
Some 13 million Americans, primarily people of color, are charged with “chump change” misdemeanors annually; they comprise 80% of the nation’s criminal cases, the film showed.
“Misdemeanors are the invidious first step in the racialization of crime, minor crimes that can devolve into police violence and death for black and brown people,” Paul Delano Butler, Georgetown University law professor who wrote “Chokehold,” said in the film.
Police often treat minor, harmless conduct as misdemeanors, Irene Joe, a University of California, Davis, law professor, noted. “Misdemeanor offenses for trivial or made-up things can have terrible consequences for people and have turned into years of incarceration or affect a person’s ability to get hired,” she said.
Misdemeanors are also a huge source of revenue. Jail fees produce an estimated $80 billion of revenue annually for city and county coffers. Traffic violations alone raise more than $6 billion a year. People are often caught between paying fines and being able to drive to work, and many cities rely on fines to cover their budgets, the film showed. The bail industry alone makes $2 billion in profits annually.
People have lost housing and jobs due to misdemeanors over suspended car licenses, and thousands who were jailed for misdemeanors during the pandemic died of COVID, the film said.
Lisa James, who became a criminal justice activist after she was jailed for feeding her kids in desperation in a supermarket, said the misdemeanor derailed her life. “At the time I remember thinking, ‘I don’t know what they’ll do, I don’t know what will happen but my kids are hungry.’ And I just started feeding them stuff as we were walking around the store.” She was arrested by an undercover cop.
“I remember coming home from prison, thinking that I would be able to start my life over,” James recalled. “I didn’t realize — I was so naïve — that society had set up a system that was dead-set against me making it from one level to the next in my life. I began to realize the truth about how the system was designed to keep me from moving forward, to keep me from getting my children, to keep me from getting a job, to keep me from doing anything productive.”
California Secretary of State Shirley Weber said the film showed how the justice system can have disastrous, longtime effects. “Most families and most parents are so concerned because these supposedly minor misdemeanors become major events that can escalate within seconds and change your life forever,” she said.
San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin said misdemeanors can lead to someone committing future crimes that they never otherwise would have done. “It funnels people into the criminal justice system in ways that can dramatically impact the course of their lives,” he said. “That’s experienced by millions of Americans every year; it impacts their ability to obtain a job, secure housing or avoiding deportation.”
Boudin cited the broad power of police to stop and arrest people for low-level offenses through almost unchecked discretion that is not enforced equitably. “It can lead to jail, turning someone’s life upside down, causing them to lose housing or custody of their children, often in ways that will never make the news the way that Daunte Wright and George Floyd’s devastating outcomes did, often in ways that are more pernicious, more subtle ways that continue a system of oppression against the country’s poorest.”
Misdemeanors are enforced primarily against communities of color, Boudin said. “These are communities already struggling with limited access to education, housing, health care and employment, access to government services,” he said. “So many misdemeanor crimes relate to poverty. Wealthy people can buy their way out of jail no matter how strong the evidence is while others languish behind bars simply because of their poverty.”