Assembly Line Justice

Have you ever been convicted of or pleaded nolo contendere (no contest) to any violation of the law other than minor traffic tickets?

Millions of people, many of whom were convicted of petty crimes, must answer this question (a favorite of employers) in the affirmative. Indeed, the Wall Street Journal reported in a recent article on the processing of misdemeanor crimes that nearly 1 in 3 Americans has a criminal record.  While those records are based on arrests, not convictions, a substantial percentage of people charged with misdemeanor offenses are convicted.  North Carolina’s district courts, for example, disposed of more than 450,000 misdemeanor (non-traffic) criminal cases in the 2013-2014 fiscal year.  A third of those cases resulted in convictions. 

“Blindingly swift” justice. The Wall Street Journal article highlighted two central problems with the processing of misdemeanor cases in state courts. First, heavy misdemeanor dockets can render the dispensation of justice in such cases “blindingly swift.” One study showed that Florida’s misdemeanor courts disposed of cases in three minutes or less.  Second, the lack of state funding for court appointed counsel results in many defendants resolving such cases without the benefit of legal advice.  And, even when attorneys are appointed, they often do not have adequate time to consult with their clients.  While no North Carolina-specific statistics are highlighted in the article, the issues it raises are familiar to our courts.

Crushing caseloads.  Today’s docket for a single criminal and infraction courtroom in Mecklenburg County District Court lists 760 cases.  Over in Wake County, 742 criminal and infraction cases are set for a single district courtroom.  Things appear slightly more reasonable in Orange County, with 176 misdemeanor and infraction cases on the docket.  But when you do the math, even that number is overwhelming, allowing for fewer than 3 minutes a case in an 8-hour session of court.  No wonder, then, that district courts resemble, as the WSJ put it, “assembly lines where time is in short supply.”

Scarce funding.  Diminishing funding for court-appointed counsel also is a familiar concern.  In an effort to preserve scarce funds, the General Assembly in 2013 amended the punishment scheme for Class 3 misdemeanors to permit imposition of a fine only for such offenses when committed by a person who had a minimal prior record.  Because a defendant has a constitutional right to counsel in a misdemeanor case only if he or she receives a sentence of imprisonment, the removal of imprisonment as an option was designed to eliminate the corresponding state expense for that representation.  Yet some would argue that the constitutional standard for appointment of counsel in a misdemeanor case fails to account for the potential lifelong impact of a criminal conviction—even a minor one punished only by a fine.

Potential solutions. The WSJ reported that some jurisdictions have removed certain types of cases from the criminal courts through special municipal programs. Spokane, Washington reportedly permits people charged with driving with a revoked licenses to obtain their licenses while paying tickets over time. And Philadephia and New York reportedly are fining people for small-time marijuana possession rather than arresting them.

North Carolina’s Office of Indigent Defense Services has studied whether decriminalizing certain offenses might be an appropriate way to reduce the cost to the state of providing appointed counsel.  And experts in North Carolina and elsewhere have pondered whether overcriminalization is cause for concern.  The legislature in 2013 did in fact decriminalize a handful of motor offenses, certain boating and water safety, and fishing without a license, though no large-scale decriminalization has occurred.  (See item 87 of this legislative summary.)

Have your say.  If you’ve been in district court lately, tell us what you think.  Are we dispensing justice assembly-line style in North Carolina?  Is that a problem?  If so, what can we do about it?

11 thoughts on “Assembly Line Justice”

  1. Yes, it is a problem. Too many actions are criminalized that should not be criminalized. Defendants must go to court over and over again if they plead not guilty. That drag induces many innocent people to plead guilty just to get the process over with sooner. Things can be done. We should decriminalize simple possession of drugs, driving while license revoked, and driving without a license. We should stop the snow-ball effect of revoking people’s driver’s licenses when they can’t pay court costs & fines then revoking them longer when they are caught driving illegally. Traffic tickets ought not to cost $200. That’s too much for poor people to pay. Also, The State should dismiss more charges. This morning in a 2-year-old DWI case after trial my client was acquitted. She blew a .00. Her blood was taken. The lab report found no alcohol, no controlled substances, and no controlled substance metabolites. The state should have dismissed that case rather than use resources for a trial. In another case my homeless client was arrested for trespassing when he was found sleeping in the bushes beside an apartment complex parking lot. A tenant thought my client was dead & called the police. That charge should have been dismissed. Just because there is probable cause to charge or even definitive proof of guilt does not mean that the State should go forward with their prosecution. When 2 teenagers get into a pushing match on the playground, send them to the principal’s office; don’t arrest them. It isn’t necessary or helpful even if both are guilty of affray.

    We could dramatically reduce the court dockets if we chose to do these and other reasonable things.

    • Amen! I am one of those people who believes that the collateral consequences of a Class 3 misdemeanor have a tremendous affect on the future of the defendants, yet they are not entitled to counsel. It is not simply a matter of whether or not they go to jail, in fact I would be curious how many Class 2 and higher misdemeanors are actually sentenced to jail. One of the best examples I can think of is shoplifting. 1. It is a misdemeanor which could be used to challenge the truthful nature of the defendant in the future by an interviewing employer, 2. A previous conviction bumps the next shoplifting charge to a Class 1, and 3. it, like every other misdemeanor, counts against your misdemeanor record, making you a Level 2 for other misdemeanor charges. I’m am not suggesting shoplifting be decriminalized, but the fact is that a conviction has consequences that reach far beyond the district courtroom, no matter the class. Additionally, I completely agree that minors should not be charged for basic schoolhouse offenses. As a prosecutor, and even now as a defense attorney, kids come to both juvenile and district court with offenses that should have been handled by the schools. With, as noted, the potential affect on their future, both in and out of school.

      • Particularly the kids at school. You don’t create a life long criminal arrest record for kids being kids. There was a time when we all were kids and did dumb kid things. When I was young the schools called the parents first and dad took it too you can guess where, and did not get charged with child abuse.

    • Thank you Walter. Far to many crimes have been created by legislative acts. Combine that with a lack of the application of common sense by LEO’s and charging when not necessary, and the upcoming assistant DA’s wanting to make a name, and we have a real problem

  2. In my opinion the problem has more to do with the lack of resources in the court system. We have too few judges, prosecutors, courts and clerks. What we do have is chronically underfunded and starved of resources. By way of anecdote, in Onslow County they run two district courts daily, and the average docket size between the two courts is consistently over 700, and spikes to perhaps 1200+ several times per month, and there is only one superior court judge position. On the defense side of the equation, the cuts to IDS reimbursement rates have driven many of the senior defense attorneys out of indigent representation, and the upcoming contract system is something of a mystery to us all.
    I would say that tinkering with the classifications of crimes and decriminalizing things in an effort to save money is a blunt tool that is likely to produce unintended consequences, and I think it is unlikely to reduce the burden on the court system. It is valid to debate the merits of many “crimes” and the punishments therefor, but that debate should not be shaped by the desire to save money and reduce costs.

  3. I believe what Walter and Anna are advocating is called “defining Deviancy Down”. If we make it non criminal to drive without a license, they why should we bother issuing them?

    • Actually, I’m not in favor of decriminalization – with some exceptions, and I’m not trying to poke the bear. I actually agree with Christopher Welch – the issue is that decriminalizing isn’t going to take the burden off the court, and the collateral consequences are not being addressed appropriately when a case is decreased in punishment. The real issue is lack of resources, and the General Assembly, in trying to address that problem chose not to increase those resources, but rather punish those who cannot afford a lawyer for offenses that are still crimes, even if they are “only” Level 3 offenses. Those offenses still have consequences that exceed the courthouse. As for the minors which I mentioned, I sincerely meant that there are offenses that need to be handled by the schools and not the court. A similar example would be siblings getting into a fight, and one hits the other. Few parents I know would call the police to stop the fight, or to charge the offending sibling with assault. They would handle in their home. Again, I’m not talking about extreme cases, I’m talking about juvenile behavior. That doesn’t make the assault not a crime, nor should it be reduced, just simply that sometimes there are more appropriate uses of the court’s time then dealing with a child’s behavior.

    • i agree with this. My ex have been caught over the years and a few months ago driving without a license. no insurance, false tag and no registration. this is about the 5th time. and it isn’t because he hasn’t had the money to pay the fines or go get them. it is because he doesn’t want them and doesn’t want anyone to know where he is. he is a felony for almost killing me. But he knows that they aren’t going to do anything but inconvenience him a little by having to go to court and maybe get a fine. That is why the law won’t bother even taking them to jail. The judge won’t do anything to them. If you break the law you should pay. if you keep breaking the law you should go to jail. No, he pleads and gets probation for almost killing me. The reason…is because I lived. That is what the ADA of Guilford County told me. Because I lived we are going to let him go with probation. He has to go to a class and did go. He gets 100,000.00 bond for that and 36 days in jail. few months later he gets caught with the charges above. But, guess what, he isn’t worried. Class 3 doesn’t break his probation. He will go to court and not miss a beat. Court system and judges are for the criminal. So, you attorneys that are whining about they don’t get an attorney I have no sorrow for them as a victim and being on the end of what these people that break the law cause over and over and over again. You could about kill someone these days and get out of jail and get probation because the jails are too full. So, lets smack them on the hand and say nicely don’t do that again or we will give you another court date you will have to attend for us to tell you the same thing. When the sheriff’s themselves tell you they don’t care that he is driving without a DL because it is only and Class 3 and nothing will be done to him and they don’t want to waste their time or do the paperwork something is wrong with that. So, let them keep on until they kill someone or themselves or both. So, you attorneys whine all you want about them not getting reorientation. They know the law and shouldn’t break it BUT THEY DON’T CARE.


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