The most damaging arm of American authoritarianism does not emanate from Washington, D.C.; it thrives on a local level. A malignancy present for generations, our misdemeanor system is where we see authoritarianism intersect with citizens’ everyday lives—often destroying them.
UC Irvine law professor Alexandra Natapoff’s Punishment Without Crime is a sweeping look at the misdemeanor system and its impact on the American people. Millions run afoul of these lower, slinking courts each year for minor offenses like littering, jaywalking, speeding or disorderly conduct. Many of the actions are not truly crimes (in the sense that a plurality finds them dangerous or threatening to civil order) and some—like vagrancy—are not even crimes in the constitutional and legal sense.
Minor offenses have the potential to fling a formerly law-abiding citizen into a fever-dream perversion of the justice system, where defendants are cranked through courtrooms to be wrung of pleas and fees as quickly as they can. And it’s often with their constitutional right to representation cleverly sidestepped so the bewildered and scared cannot invoke it.
They are held in filthy, overcrowded jails with other patrons of the justice system who may be a true danger to others and themselves. They are locked away from their life, because they cannot afford to pay for bail, imprisoned before being found guilty. Even a brush or glancing blow from the misdemeanor court can mean civic and civil death; the preponderance of fines and fees requires a job to pay off, which they can no longer get with a record, or with their license taken away, or which they get fired from because they have let their rent lapse in an attempt to escape the system. They use cash to feed their kids, break probation payments to some private bloodsuckers and are hauled off to the state’s jail in a disgusting orgy of private and public malfeasance.
The demanding of money, all while instituting numerous and nefarious ways of preventing the earning of it, is among the most damaging and enraging hypocrisies governing life in America.
It is among the most pernicious and common attacks on quality of life, and it comes at the hands of our own petty tyrants. What Punishment Without Crime reveals is a network of authoritarian cells across the country, courts whose composure is unconstitutional and undemocratic.
They draw their power and form from the antebellum South, from the desire to keep others— always people of color and the poor—down and apart. Racial inequity is a feature; Natapoff writes that in Baltimore, trespassing papers had “BLACK MALE” already filled in, racism formalized. And for those not abusing the court to those ends, avarice is an easy and effective motivator. As courts and towns make their money off of the fines and fees levied against those unfortunate enough to be in their orbit, there’s great incentive to spread the dragnet and the riches.
Misdemeanor courts are the monstrous children of the debtor’s prisons engaged in the most American of modes: the criminalization of need.
Like everything else in America, the fatality of an encounter with the misdemeanor court is determined by race and money. It has for too long hidden in the sinister camouflage of suffusion, so pervasive as to be permissive, leaving its victims broke or dead. On their face unconstitutional, the courts merely need to be challenged—relentlessly, righteously, passionately—and they will succumb as a disease does to bleach.
Misdemeanor courts wield the bluntest, dumbest and cruelest instruments of the justice system, a host of biased codes called “order-maintenance” crimes. What Punishment Without Crime makes clear is whose order, exactly, is being maintained.
B. David Zarley is a freelance journalist, essayist and book/art critic based in Chicago. A former book critic for The Myrtle Beach Sun News, he is a contributing reporter to A Beautiful Perspective and has been seen in The Atlantic, Hazlitt, Jezebel, Chicago, Sports Illustrated, VICE Sports, Creators, Sports on Earth and New American Paintings, among numerous other publications. You can find him on Twitter or at his website.