Each year, hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians are branded as criminals for committing offenses as minor as fishing without a license or driving with an expired license tag. They lose wages while they spend time in court. Employers lose out when their employees miss work.
And citizens lose as the result of millions of taxpayer dollars spent to usher these and other minor offenses through an already overburdened court system.
Lawmakers have the opportunity to reclassify these and other offenses as infractions instead of misdemeanors. Doing so would affect hundreds of thousands of cases. Citizens committing these minor offenses would still be accountable for their actions, but they would face fines – civil penalties – instead of being branded with criminal records and losing wages. Moreover, because imprisonment is not a potential consequence of infractions, taxpayer dollars would not go toward appointed attorney fees.
More than 1 in 10 adult North Carolinians have a criminal matter before the court each year. In 2009, that meant the N.C. court system processed nearly 1.5 million cases. Over 820,000 of those cases involved 30 minor offenses such as speeding, failure to inform the Division of Motor Vehicles of an address change and expired registration.
Furthermore, of the 30 misdemeanors in question, not a single one is a violent crime.
Reclassification also likely would contribute to a decline in other negative consequences, including recidivism, which research shows often results from even the briefest of jail terms.
A 2011 study by the N.C. Commission on Indigent Defense Services found that by reclassifying these 30 misdemeanors as infractions, the state would save nearly $2 million annually in indigent defense expenses alone. And this estimate represents just a portion of the possible cost savings. In addition to legal representation are the costs of prosecution as well as possible jail and probation.
Some have suggested that district attorneys might oppose reclassification. Actually, this change would allow district attorneys’ offices to reallocate time and resources to more serious cases. The same is true for the already strapped public defense system. Reclassifying the 30 misdemeanors would free up resources to address cases that demand more attention.
State legislators convened in a fiercely tight fiscal environment. Reclassifying minor offenses as infractions would help our state’s budget and hundreds of thousands of our state’s citizens. This is a bipartisan problem that can benefit from a bipartisan solution. Win, win, save.
Jenni Owen is the director of Policy Initiatives at Duke’s Center for Child and Family Policy and a commissioner on the NC Indigent Defense Services Commission.