As a nation, America spends far too much time and money pursuing petty criminals, and we can’t see much benefit in that.
More than 80% of all criminal cases processed through the nation’s justice system are misdemeanors — a homeless person panhandling outside a coffee shop, an addict who stole $50 to feed a drug habit — that steal hundreds of hours in law enforcement time that could be better spent investigating murders, gun crimes and other serious, violent offenses.
And all too often, as an important new analysis of almost 15 years of crime data has found,
taking an overly tough approach to prosecuting petty offenders just makes matters worse. Nonviolent, misdemeanor offenders who are not
prosecuted are actually less
likely to be arrested for another crime anytime soon.
The typical alleged misdemeanor offender, it seems, too often gets caught up in a criminal justice system that is poorly equipped to deal with poverty, poor schooling, mental illness and all the other social ills at the roots of so much crime.
Or perhaps the alleged offender loses his job because of time spent in jails and courtrooms, only to end up with a conviction or arrest record that makes it harder to find the next job.
In 185 days — the average time, according to the study, that it took to dispose of a non-violent, misdemeanor case — a lot can happen to derail a life already teetering off the tracks.