Most people, both lay and expert, would not quibble with the claim that American criminal justice is primarily adjudicative in nature. Specifically, the criminal justice system is concerned with separating the factually innocent from the guilty (erring procedurally on the side of innocence) and meting out punishment to the guilty. Thus, prosecutors dismiss weak cases and pursue charges only when guilt can be established. The guilty either plead or are convicted after trial, and a conviction is the primary basis for adverse consequences, such as jail and probation. Most would also acknowledge that the adjudicative function sometimes goes off the rails, for example, when aggressive plea bargaining or poorly structured sentencing guidelines coerce innocent people to plead guilty or when excessive pretrial detention attaches to a minor charge. However, often people think of such occurrences as deviations from or perversions of a system that in principal differentiates between the innocent and guilty and punishes the guilty. It might come as a surprise then to find out that in New York City, a very large percentage of criminal cases are resolved completely irrespective of defendants’ guilt or innocence.
Conducting a multi-year ethnography of New York City misdemeanor court, Professor Issa Kohler-Hausmann observed, day after day, prosecutors dismiss cases with ample evidence of the defendant’s guilt and insist on guilty pleas in the face of questionable facts. Contrary to existing descriptions of misdemeanor courts as conviction mills that fail to differentiate between types of misdemeanants or assembly-lines that produce quick but schizophrenic dispositions, Kohler-Hausmann discovered that NYC misdemeanor courts engage in meticulous categorizations of defendants and apply dispositions (continuance and then dismissal (ACD), conviction for a violation, misdemeanor conviction) to the differentiated categories of defendants in predictable manners. However, the categories of defendants are not determined along a spectrum of factual guilt. Accordingly, it is not necessarily the case that the defendants against whom there is weak evidence receive ACDs and those against whom there is ample evidence are convicted of the highest charge. Instead, the NYC misdemeanor system sorts defendants and graduates outcomes on the basis of defendants’ prior contacts with the system. Kohler-Hausmann’s quantitative analysis demonstrates that prior misdemeanor convictions are highly predictive of future misdemeanor convictions, and the probability of being convicted on a pending misdemeanor charge significantly increases with every past misdemeanor conviction. By contrast, prior felony convictions do not correlate significantly with conviction on pending felony charges (although they most certainly affect sentencing once there is a conviction). In short, the more times an individual spends in the misdemeanor court system, the more likely it is that she will be convicted, regardless of the evidentiary strength of the case. In fact, through a series of stunning vignettes, Kohler-Hausmann illustrates just how adverse prosecutors, judges, and even some defense attorneys are to introducing questions of factual innocence into the misdemeanor disposition process. Continue reading "Marked!"