Report about Racialized Legacy of Misdemeanors Reveals ‘Overwhelming Numbers of Black and Brown People in Modern-Day Shackles’ 

In the Jim Crow era, misdemeanor charges were systematically imposed to exploit Black labor. Shown here, workers leased to Harvest Timber. Florida, 1915.

By Rena Abdusalam

BALTIMORE, MD – Pretrial Justice Institute (PJI), an organization that mobilizes and informs local pretrial changemakers and works to end mass incarceration, has released a report investigating the history and effect of misdemeanors on the pretrial process, including starting points for progressing antiracist solutions.

“The vast majority of people awaiting trial in the U.S. are charged with misdemeanors, which comprise 80 percent of court dockets around the country,” said PJI. “Many of these charges can trace their roots to the racist history of the criminal legal system, and the growing number of misdemeanors in criminal code still clog the pretrial process without improving public safety.”

The report specifically explores the impact misdemeanor offenses have had on the pretrial process and describes relevant reforms found on antiracist ideals, consistent with system actors, community members, and solutions based on equity, accountability, and safety, not punishment.   

“In the misdemeanor system many of the worst injustices occur pretrial without fanfare, scrutiny, or data. This new paper from PJI shines a light on this important phenomenon and how we might collectively address it,” said Alexandra Natopoff, Harvard Law School’s Lee S. Kreindler Professor of Law

“PJI’s latest report on misdemeanors wrestles with an essential question: If we believe the system we are trying to reform is founded/steeped in white supremacy and structural racism, how do we create solutions grounded in antiracism?” states Michael Finley of the W. Haywood Burns Institute. “Do we want reform or are we talking about something different?”

Manohar Raju, San Francisco Public Defender, also adds, “Conversations around the systemic racism of the criminal punishment system often overlook the widespread harm caused by the mass coercion of misdemeanor pleas through pre-trial detention. This paper by PJI persuasively articulates the urgent need to address that harm.”

The report concluded, “The long, difficult history of attempts at pretrial reforms has shown what happens when considerations of racial equity are not at the forefront. Electronic monitoring has resulted in overwhelming numbers of Black and brown people in modern-day shackles.

“Onerous conditions of pretrial release, and penalties for failing to adhere to all of the conditions, has helped swell the number of Americans under some form of court supervision to over 5 million people. Pretrial risk assessments have provided a scientific veneer to the pretrial process, while overstating risk, particularly among Black men.”

The report noted a “common thread among all of these reforms is a failure to orient solutions toward the agency, freedom and wellbeing of marginalized people and their communities. Much of what is said here can also be applied to forms of oppression and harm of other identities, including ability, gender identity, class, and sexual orientation.

“An antiracist lens is our opportunity to get at real, longlasting reductions of harm, redistribute power and agency in communities, and move toward solutions that keep all people safe.”

The report can be found here: 


About The Author

Rena is a junior at Davis Senior High School and is currently exploring her interest in the criminal justice system. After high school, she plans to attend college and continue to pursue a career in law.

Related posts

Leave a Reply

X Close

Newsletter Sign-Up

X Close

Monthly Subscriber Sign-Up

Enter the maximum amount you want to pay each month
Sign up for