Cover image for Punishment without crime : how our massive misdemeanor system traps the innocent and makes America more unequal / Alexandra Natapoff.
Punishment without crime : how our massive misdemeanor system traps the innocent and makes America more unequal / Alexandra Natapoff.
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Basic Books, 2018.

Physical Description:
vii, 334 pages ; 24 cm
Introduction -- Impact -- Size -- Process -- Innocence -- Money -- Race -- History -- Justice -- Change -- Epilogue.
"Punishment Without Crime offers an urgent new interpretation of inequality and injustice in America by examining the paradigmatic American offense: the lowly misdemeanor. Based on extensive original research, legal scholar Alexandra Natapoff reveals the inner workings of a massive petty offense system that produces over 13 million cases each year. People arrested for minor crimes are swept through courts where defendants often lack lawyers, judges process cases in mere minutes, and nearly everyone pleads guilty. This misdemeanor machine starts punishing people long before they are convicted; it punishes the innocent; and it punishes conduct that never should have been a crime. As a result, vast numbers of Americans -- most of them poor and people of color -- are stigmatized as criminals, impoverished through fines and fees, and stripped of drivers' licenses, jobs, and housing. For too long, misdemeanors have been ignored. But they are crucial to understanding our punitive criminal system and our widening economic and racial divides." --
Geographic Term:


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364.60973 NAT Book Adult General Collection

On Order



Punishment Without Crime provides a sweeping and revelatory new account of America's broken criminal justice system from the perspective of the paradigmatic American crime-the lowly misdemeanor. While felony trials grab headlines, the petty offense system is far more representative of criminal justice as most Americans actually encounter it. Petty offenses make up 80 percent of state and local criminal dockets; over 13 million misdemeanor cases are filed every year, four times the number of felony cases. Misdemeanors are one of the largest and most unappreciated causes of our criminal system's size and its harshness-and a crucial source of American inequality.

Misdemeanor cases are by definition "minor," but their impact is not. Each year, the petty offense process sweeps millions of people from arrest to a guilty plea or conviction. In effect, police get to decide who will be convicted of minor crimes, simply by arresting them for offenses like driving on a suspended licenses, marijuana possession, disorderly conduct, and loitering. In thousands of low-level courts around the country, prosecutors do little vetting, most defendants lack lawyers, legal rules and evidence are often ignored, and judges process cases in minutes or even seconds. The consequences are serious and lasting: stigmatizing criminal records, burdensome fines, jail for those who can't afford to pay bail or fees, and collateral effects including loss of jobs, housing, and benefits.

Punishment Without Crime offers an urgent new explanation for America's racial and economic inequalities, showing starkly how misdemeanor arrests and prosecutions brand vast numbers of disadvantaged Americans as criminals and punish them accordingly. For the first time, prize-winning legal scholar Alexandra Natapoff illuminates the full scale, scope, and workings of the misdemeanor process, drawing on never-before-compiled data as well as revealing narrative examples. The misdemeanor system, she reveals, targets and stigmatizes racial minorities as "criminals," exacerbates economic inequality by funding its own operation through fines and fees, and produces wrongful convictions on a massive scale.

For too long, misdemeanors have been ignored as petty. Reckoning with the misdemeanor machine is crucial to understanding America's punitive and unfair criminal justice system and our widening economic and racial divides.

Author Notes

Alexandra Natapoff is professor of law at the University of California, Irvine. A 2016 Guggenheim Fellow, she is also the author of Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice, which won the 2010 ABA Silver Gavel Award Honorable Mention for Books. She lives in Irvine, California.

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

Law professor Natapoff (Snitching) paints a picture of large-scale judicial and police misconduct in this exposAc of the misdemeanor system. Drawing on local data from across the U.S. and anecdotes, she shows that many defendants in misdemeanor cases have committed no crimes, are given no legal counsel and no jury trial, and have their fates decided in three minutes or less. Furthermore, she argues, many misdemeanor arrests are unfair: poverty is criminalized and race makes certain people more likely than others to be arrested; in Urbana, Ill., for example, 91% of those ticketed for jaywalking were black despite only 16% of the population being black. Next, grievously overburdened public defenders, daily jail fees that are nigh unpayable for impoverished defendants, and financial incentives for judges to convict lead to overly high rates of conviction. This can have a steep cost for those affected: in addition to driving people further into poverty, a single low-level conviction can render a person ineligible to work for many employers. Intelligently written, tightly argued, and often heartbreaking, Natapoff's account is a worthy companion to Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow. Agent: Sam Stoloff, Frances Goldman Literary Agency. (Dec.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Library Journal Review

The subtitle of this volume captures its essence. Natapoff (law, Univ. of California, Irvine; Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice; coeditor, The New Criminal Justice Thinking) lends her expertise to describing the complex U.S. misdemeanor justice system. Although mass incarceration is recognized as a serious issue, the misdemeanor phenomenon, by comparison, has escaped similar attention. Natapoff uses data and personal case studies to demonstrate how this overlooked process impacts some 13 million Americans annually, especially people from disadvantaged communities. Yet, the injustices of the system remain under the radar since the vast majority of offenses are largely handled by state and local systems, which may administer justice arbitrarily. While sometimes avoiding jail time, the burden of steep fines and fees can still leave people with a permanent record. VERDICT This well-researched and highly readable work is a model case study of America's criminal justice system. Besides being ideal for use in the classroom, it will attract criminal justice scholars and anyone invested in human rights.-William D. Pederson, Louisiana State Univ., Shreveport © Copyright 2019. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Table of Contents

Introductionp. 1
1 Impactp. 19
1 Sizep. 39
1 Processp. 55
1 Innocencep. 87
1 Moneyp. 113
1 Racep. 149
1 Historyp. 171
1 Justicep. 187
1 Changep. 211
Epiloguep. 247
Appendixp. 251
Acknowledgmentsp. 265
Notesp. 267
Indexp. 327