Book Reviews

Lives Ruined for Petty Crimes

A new book explores how America's criminal justice system heaps debts on those who can't possibly pay.


Punishment Without Crime: How Our Massive Misdemeanor System Traps the Innocent and Makes America More Unequal, by Alexandra Natapoff, Basic Books, 352 pages, $30

The plight of Ashley, chronicled in a recent class-action lawsuit filed in Tennessee, reads like a Book of Job as written by a petty bureaucrat. The 26-year-old single mother was working at Waffle House, making $2.13 an hour plus tips, when she was pulled over in a Nashville suburb. Cited for speeding and failure to carry proof of insurance, she was assessed $477.50 in fines and court costs. When she did not pay, the state suspended her license without notifying her.

In subsequent months, Ashley was pulled over again and fined $224.50, and then again and fined $244. She was finally, belatedly, informed that her license had been suspended this whole time and that she now owed $946. Finding herself in court facing the misdemeanor charge of driving on a suspended license (another $439.50), Ashley offered to make an $80 payment toward the total. She was informed that no partial amounts could be accepted and that her license could not be reinstated until she had paid her debts in full, plus an additional $388 in reinstatement fees.

Ashley lost the job at Waffle House. Without a valid driver's license, she had no reliable transportation to her shifts. If she continued driving on a suspended license, she might incur more fines. But if she couldn't get to work, she couldn't earn the money she needed to pay the debt.

Federal District Court Judge Aleta Trauger, who in July 2018 issued a preliminary ruling that Tennessee's inflexible approach to automatic license suspensions is likely unconstitutional, has observed that it's hard to understand the state's reasoning for giving indigent citizens no opportunity to have a hearing or negotiate a reasonable payment plan, unless "the purpose of such a scheme were to make an indigent driver's first traffic violation her entrée into an endless cycle of greater and greater debt."

Reading this story in isolation, one might think that Ashley was uniquely unlucky or irresponsible. But Alexandra Natapoff's new book Punishment Without Crime makes it clear that the young mom's plight is relatively typical for Americans, especially poor Americans, who have the misfortune to interact with the edifices of government that enforce laws against misdemeanors, traffic violations, and other supposedly "petty" offenses.

Each year about 13 million people are charged with misdemeanors in the United States. They are disproportionately poor and disproportionately black or Latino. Because the state considers the offenses minor and the punishments mild, courts adjudicate these cases in a relatively rudimentary way, often processing guilty pleas in a matter of minutes and without providing the accused with counsel.

One problem with speedy processing is that the state is rarely required to provide much (if any) evidence supporting the charges. Untold numbers might be pleading guilty to crimes they haven't actually committed or submitting to punishments that a lawyer might have been able to reduce.

Still, a speedy process might be unobjectionable (despite the risk of error) if a misdemeanor conviction had little lasting effect on a person's life and if the punishments were, in fact, mild. Neither is the case.

Natapoff, who teaches law at the University of California, Irvine, shows that misdemeanor convictions can lead to a permanent criminal record, potential jail time, and increasingly—as Ashley's case demonstrates—a spiraling crisis of debt owed to the government in the various guises of fines, fees, court costs, and taxes. Follow-on consequences can include loss of a job or housing (whether because of formal ineligibility or because of time spent in jail), loss of immigration status, a diminished credit rating, restrictions on driving, and more. The book describes misdemeanor enforcement as a sprawling net of interlocking laws, practices, and institutions that together impose what are essentially regressive taxes, as states, localities, and private companies seek to squeeze revenue from "an ever-widening pool of mostly low-income people."

In one sense, these phenomena are not new. Police have long targeted the poor and other vulnerable groups, and low-level courts have long operated in a slapdash manner shocking to observers expecting full-fledged due process.

There is at least one way, though, in which the burdens of petty justice have become heavier in recent years. As the Department of Justice documented in its report on Ferguson, Missouri, localities increasingly rely upon court-imposed fees as a significant revenue source for funding basic government operations, creating a fiscal incentive to punish as many people as possible. This situation is more acute in some places than others—Ferguson was found to derive a fifth of its annual budget from fines and fees, while Phoenix, Arizona, derives less than 2 percent of its budget from the same. This suggests that there is no necessary connection between running a local government and squeezing revenue out of poor residents. States and localities also increasingly contract with private companies to manage probation supervision, then permit these companies to charge probationers directly for the "privilege" of being supervised.

For readers unfamiliar with how misdemeanor proceedings operate, Natapoff's book offers a panoramic introduction to their many petty indignities. For readers already aware of the contours of the problem, the book offers a compendium of data and examples. It makes a compelling case that it is difficult to justify how misdemeanor justice operates, whether your criterion is human dignity, just punishment, democratic governance, or simply government efficiency. (Trying to extort money out of people who do not have any is not the most efficient way of raising revenue.) Conferring so much discretion on local police and prosecutors, Natapoff suggests, "creates and tolerates" patterns of "informal local authoritarianism"—patterns reinforced by the Supreme Court's recent lack of interest in rigorous enforcement of the Fourth Amendment.

Law professors tend to define their job in terms of helping to solve problems. Natapoff duly includes a final chapter issuing recommendations for change. I found some of these recommendations intriguingly disconsonant with the rest of the book.

Her suggestions include criminalizing less conduct, arresting fewer people, sending fewer people to jail once arrested, eliminating court fees for people who are genuinely indigent, and detaching eligibility for government benefits from low-level criminal convictions. So far, so good.

But then there are a number of fuzzier recommendations that call upon officials and ordinary people to, essentially, enlighten themselves. Natapoff urges lawyers, judges, police, and court officials to take what they are doing more seriously. Even when adjudicating a minor offense, they should "behave like it matters." Prosecutors should "screen and exercise their discretion thoughtfully," and judges should "run their courtrooms in lawful, rigorous, and respectful ways." Voters and citizens should recognize that even misdemeanor convictions carry serious consequences and think harder about whether to define minor misbehavior as "criminal" to begin with: "Wealthy college kids who smoke weed, undocumented laborers who drive over the speed limit, single mothers who live in heavily policed public housing, and prosperous lawyers who drive home after a scotch" should recognize that "we are all petty offenders." Precisely because misdemeanor justice is so highly localized, Natapoff expresses hope that we live in "an exciting moment with enormous possibilities" for local innovation to alleviate the problems she identifies.

I found it difficult to muster the suggested optimism. Perhaps it was because, by the time I got to the recommendations, I had just reviewed 200 pages describing people doing blatantly disturbing things to one another, cloaked in the authority of law. A 50-year-old woman, unable to work because of debilitating pain, was arrested for shoplifting, placed on probation with a private company, and forced to pay monthly fees, including $20 a pop for regular drug testing, until she eventually lost her car because she could not afford to pay for that too. A homeless Iraq War veteran got drunk, found himself "convicted of destruction of property and resisting arrest," and was ordered to pay $2,600 in fines (he owned, at the time, $25). Two black men "were arrested in a Philadelphia Starbucks for 'trespassing' because one of them asked to use the restroom without placing an order." Can the police, prosecutors, legislators, and judges responsible for these incidents reasonably be called upon to behave more "thoughtfully"? Or is there something in the nature of giving people power over others that makes such thoughtfulness hard to maintain?

As for wealthy college kids and prosperous lawyers, I share Natapoff's hope that our best bet for better misdemeanor policy is if they recognize their common humanity with undocumented laborers and single mothers. Hopefully some of them will read this book.

NEXT: Brickbat: Not Playing Around

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  1. So what, we allow certain people to vandalize others property, drive without a license or insurance, steal? Are they not to be held responsible for their actions? And if there is no consequence to violating the rights of others, you think that makes a kinder society? Exactly how far do you extend this you-are-poor/disadvantaged-therefore-therefore-you-can-wreck-havoc-on-innocents?

    And for the record, police don’t “target” the poor. Poor people commit a disproportionate amount of crime, most often against other poor people. And decent people living in lower income areas deserve justice, deserve a safe place to live too.

    1. “”So what, we allow certain people to vandalize others property,””

      It’s amazing how many people are fine with stuff like that as long as it happens to other people.

      1. I mean, she was pulled for not having insurance. She hits somebody and…what happens to THEM? Does the person she potentially harms deserve no consideration? If she cannot afford insurance, how could she afford to compensate anybody for any damages she causes?

        These “petty” crimes become huge problems when ignored. Ignoring laws against public defecation has turned SF into a literal shit hole.

        And the Starbucks example? A company should be REQUIRED to kill its business by allowing non-customers to loiter around?

        If this Libertarianism’s new cause, the movement deserves its death.

        1. Indeed, none of these crimes are appropriately described as petty, although they pale in comparison, for example, to illegal “parody” that damages an academic reputation. See the documentation of our nation’s leading criminal “satire” case at:

    2. This is the worst take I’ve ever heard.

    3. The problems detailed in the article concern court costs, fines and other mandates to pay THE GOVERNMENT not the victim. Those who commit crimes need to be held accountable, and restitution to the victim is often appropriate. But imprisoning people or piling fine upon unpaid fine because they did not pay the government for a made-up “offense” that offended no one violates every basic libertarian principle.

      1. If somebody cannot afford insurance, how in the hell can they afford to compensate somebody for an injury if they cause one?

        Driving is very much not a right, after all.

        1. Read the story closer. She was cited not for failure to HAVE insurance, but for failure to CARRY PROOF OF insurance. In other words, she didn’t have her insurance card in the vehicle, for whatever reason. At least that’s how I read it. If in fact she didn’t have insurance at all, I expect it would be her vehicle registration that would be suspended, rather than her license. The story (or the book it’s based on) should be clearer as to whether or not there was a policy in effect despite the driver not having the card. If the book’s author couldn’t find that out, she should probably have said so.

          1. Nah. That’s what they call the charge. If you show the card after the fact those charges are dropped anywhere I’ve ever heard of. I talked a cop out of even bothering to issue such a ticket once when I actually didn’t have insurance at the time because I have a silver tongue.

          2. I once had a cop cite me for failure to carry insurance WHEN I HAD GIVEN THE PROOF OF INSURANCE TO HIM AND IT WAS ON HIS CLIPBOARD RIGHT UNDER THE TICKET HE WAS WRITING. It was not intentional, he just checked the wrong box on that ticket, but straightening it out required taking time off work and traveling back to that city, an hour away.

            Also, at least in Michigan, all auto insurance and DMV information is on-line for cops to find on the computers in their cars. If a cop can read your license plate number, he’ll know whether the car is insured, who the primary driver is, whether that driver is licensed, whether there are any warrants, unpaid parking tickets, etc., against him, and have seen his driver’s license photo before he gets out of his car. It’s only bureaucratic inertia that has kept the requirements to carry those little pieces of paper in place.

  2. “Wealthy college kids who smoke weed, undocumented laborers who drive over the speed limit, single mothers who live in heavily policed public housing, and prosperous lawyers who drive home after a scotch”

    Half of those examples aren’t even crimes. But I knew plenty of poor college kids who smoked weed – most of them are quite wealthy now. If I was caught speeding while working illegally in Honduras, I’m sure they’d extort the shit out of me and throw me in one of their hellscape prisons before deporting me. But do we arrest single mothers for living in public housing? Last I heard it wasn’t illegal to drive home after a scotch, unless you live in Sweden.

    1. I wonder if somebody felt it OK to copy entire online articles and post them sans attribution would be laughed at? How about somebody who steals a magazine, scans every page, and posts it online?

      Easy to say its petty when it is not impacting you.

      I’m betting Reason’s offices don’t allow randos off the street to use their bathroom and loiter around without security or police getting involved. Call it a hunch.

  3. If someone is driving without insurance that they cannot afford, the appropriate response *is* to suspend the license and get them off the road. The problem is that the reform system should offer a way for those in good faith to become a part-time contributor. Do you take the kids they can’t afford into foster care for a year? Incarcerate them and force them to use the time on job training? Give them an opportunity to stamp licence plates or do something else of value?
    I’d get behind legislators that were serious about helping people in that kind of fashion rather than just pulling up fees and looking the other way

  4. I’m not going to say the nuts and bolts details don’t get REAL stupid with a lot of this stuff… Sometimes the fines are too high, sometimes things like not being able to make payment arrangements are dumb, etc…

    But don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. The truth of the matter is that stupid poor people are stupid. They make bad decisions more often than others, and because their whole life is a series of bad decisions, they’re extra bonus fucked by stacking additional bad decisions on top.

    I could shit $1,000 for stuff… But I wouldn’t have to. Because I’d know to get the charge deferred, or the initial fine reduced, AND if i somehow didn’t have the money, you can also set up payment arrangements BEFORE it goes to the point of getting your license suspended. Those are all things that exist where I live. Maybe not everywhere, but probably most places. This person is a moron and fucked everything up on their own.

    It’s not that I don’t feel sorry for dumb people… But you can only cut them so much slack before you let society collapse into utter chaos. Here in Seattle where I live the “Cut the druggie hobos some slack!” mentality has turned the entire city into a free for all for shooting heroin and breaking into cars. I’d rather teach the occasional single mother a valuable life lesson to not be dumb than let shit go the way it has here.

    Even dumb people need to be held to some standards. That they fail to measure up to such standards more often than others is the breaks… Life ain’t fair. Just as I have to put up with not being worth 100s of millions of dollars, famous, and super sexy like Brad Pitt, so too do those below me on the totem pole have to come to terms with their lot in life!

    BUT, as I said above, I’m not opposed to sensible tweaks. People should be able to make payments on a suspended license, and get it back in good graces, where it should stay unless they fail to make payments. Things like that are reasonable. Many entire laws should go too. But don’t can the entire idea of having standards for shit.

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