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Courts overwhelmed by misdemeanor cases and inequality

The criminal justice system in Texas and across the U.S. is being overrun by misdemeanor cases, according to a book by a former federal public defender. As a result, many people are being denied a proper defense. This is especially true for minority defendants.

Based on arrest data from the FBI and other sources, the author of the book estimates that misdemeanors account for approximately 80 percent of all cases currently making their way through the American criminal justice system. In fact, 13 million misdemeanor cases are filed nationwide each year. Because of this overwhelming number, prosecutors, public defenders, and judges struggle to keep up with their caseloads. For public defenders, this often means that they don't have the resources to investigate cases. They are also frequently discouraged from filing motions or fighting potential constitutional violations in court, which leads to a high number of plea bargains.

While plea deals can help defendants who are actually guilty of committing the misdemeanors they are charged with, they can also push innocent defendants into pleading guilty. Further, recent studies have found that there are racial disparities in the plea deals that defendants receive. For example, white defendants facing misdemeanor charges are almost 75 percent more likely than black defendants to have charges carrying incarceration penalties dismissed, reduced or dropped.

Defendants facing misdemeanor charges could help their case by retaining the services of a criminal defense attorney. The attorney could properly investigate a defendant's case and develop a strong defense designed to get the charges reduced or dismissed. If legal counsel determines that a plea bargain may be in a defendant's best interests, he or she could work to negotiate the best deal possible on behalf of the client.

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