Misdemeanor Courts, Due Process, and Case Outcomes

AuthorAlisa Smith,Sean Maddan
Published date01 December 2020
Date01 December 2020
Subject MatterArticles
Criminal Justice Policy Review
2020, Vol. 31(9) 1312 –1339
© The Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0887403420901759
Misdemeanor Courts, Due
Process, and Case Outcomes
Alisa Smith1 and Sean Maddan2
Very little research on courts and sentencing outcomes focuses on misdemeanor
courts despite the fact that most crime processed through the criminal justice system
is misdemeanor in nature. In fact, the overwhelming empiricism in this area is on felony
court outcomes at either the federal or state levels. This research utilized a mixed
methodology approach, a combination of observation, survey, and secondary data, to
explore misdemeanor court outcomes across the State of Florida. In particular, this
research focused on the extent of due process afforded misdemeanor defendants and
how this impacted case outcomes. Findings indicate an overall lack of due process
and awareness of due process rights across the vast majority of cases. This study also
explored sentencing outcomes via traditional metrics associated with contemporary
sentencing research. Findings suggest that misdemeanor courts processing operate
much differently than felony courts. The implications for future research and policy
are discussed.
misdemeanor courts, due process, misdemeanor crimes
The lower courts have been referred to as a paradox: The lowers courts are largely
ignored by both lawyers and scholars, but they are the primary judicial experience for
most people who enter the criminal justice system (Silbey, 1981). Most citizens (and
noncitizens) who interact with the judiciary do so in the lower courts. These citizens
see a fundamentally different courtroom than they see on television and in movies.
1University of Central Florida, Orlando, USA
2Texas A&M International University, Laredo, USA
Corresponding Author:
Sean Maddan, Associate Professor, Chair, Department of Social Sciences, Texas A&M International
University, 5201 University Boulevard, Laredo, TX 78041, USA.
Email: sean.maddan@tamiu.edu
901759CJPXXX10.1177/0887403420901759Criminal Justice Policy ReviewSmith and Maddan
Smith and Maddan 1313
Justice to citizens charged with misdemeanors is very different from the version of
justice depicted across the mass media. It has the appearance of being both chaotic and
unfair. This inherent contradiction of the lower courts is even more pervasive follow-
ing years of “broken windows” and “quality-of-life” policing. Lower courts process
many cases every day. Despite this fact, the lower courts have operated in near secrecy
due to the lack of emphasis by all relevant stakeholders. Recently, the media, civil
rights groups, and scholars have begun to highlight the multitude of challenges inher-
ent in the lower courts.
While there is a newfound emphasis on the lower courts, government at all levels
has largely failed to collect data on misdemeanor crimes; instead, the focus is on data
collection for the most serious crimes: homicide, robbery, sexual assault, and serious
property crimes. Even when data are collected by the government (e.g., U.S. Sentencing
Commission data), it is generally lacking full detail on misdemeanor processing (due
process and decision/plea bargaining), which is largely absent in Bureau of Justice
Statistics datasets. Without easy access to “big data,” scholars have eschewed the
lower courts for courts that focus on felony indictments. In spite of the work of
Malcolm Feeley in the 1970s and the interest it garnered through the early 1990s, the
study of misdemeanor courts has been relatively dormant. Legal scholars and non-
profit organizations in the early 2000s reignited interest in studying the misdemeanor
courts following the widespread adoption of quality-of-life policing strategies, which
necessarily increased misdemeanor arrests (Geller, 2016; Wilson & Kelling, 1982).
More recently, empirical efforts in the area of the misdemeanor courts have begun to
parallel the work from the felony courts, with an overall emphasis on disparities across
race and gender. Bach’s (2009) qualitative work, discussing a series of case studies,
revealed remarkable, yet secreted, stories of injustice throughout the misdemeanor
courts. The need for more empirical research (especially peer-reviewed research) on
the lower courts was, and continues to be, great.
While parallels in research efforts across felony and misdemeanor courts are impor-
tant, it is important to remember that misdemeanor crimes and how they are processed
through the criminal justice system are qualitatively different, even if arrests are com-
pleted by the same police and the courts are run by the same judges. There are many
different lines of research that necessarily can be developed in the misdemeanor courts
that would be irrelevant in felony courts. In the earliest work by the National
Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL, 2009), Minor Crimes, Massive
Waste, researchers summarized findings from existing studies and anecdotes from
misdemeanor court observers across seven states. This study and further research by
Bach (2009) illustrated procedural and due process lapses in the misdemeanor courts
in Georgia, Illinois, Mississippi, and New York. After Minor Crimes, Massive Waste,
NACDL, the Center for Court Innovation and the Sixth Amendment Center began
systematically gathering empirical data to quantitatively demonstrate the weaknesses
in the right to counsel, due process, and procedural justice in the misdemeanor courts.
In Three-Minute Justice, Smith and Maddan (2011) found that misdemeanants, who
have the right to counsel and due process of law, were either not receiving these rights
or that these rights were being severely blunted in Florida’s lower criminal courts,

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