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Convictions for small crimes can have big consequences

It is becoming increasingly clear that there are major problems with the criminal justice system in the United States, including racial and socioeconomic bias, wrongful convictions and overly harsh prison sentences. But there is also a problem with the way that the criminal justice system influences life in the rest of society.

A criminal record of any kind can have consequences that reach far beyond just serving jail time or paying fines. Even minor offenses can haunt someone for years to come. This problem was discussed in a recent opinion piece about how misdemeanors are and should be dealt with. 

According to the article, the vast majority of criminal arrests and convictions each year are for misdemeanors. This category accounts for more than 13 million cases annually, and includes offenses like shoplifting, public intoxication, trespassing and possession of small amounts of drugs.

These offenses are considered small enough that many defendants won’t even face jail time if they are convicted or plead guilty. They will, however, face fines and court fees, probation, community service and other punishments. The far more important consequence, though, is the criminal record itself.

A conviction on your record can make it much more difficult to find a job, qualify for desirable housing, get admitted into college, qualify for student loans or participate in other important ways in the community. Because of this, a relatively small offense has disproportionately large consequences that can last for years.

How should this problem be addressed? In some cases, states have taken measures to reduce bias against those with criminal records by removing standard questions about criminal history from job applications. But perhaps it would be more effective to address the problem from the other side. Police departments and courts in some major cities are working to resolve low-level criminal cases in ways that do not result in a “rap sheet” for offenders while still addressing the public safety concerns associated with the offenses.

It is unclear if this approach will be adopted widely here in Wisconsin. Until or unless it is adopted, anyone accused of a crime needs to understand the risks they are facing with a conviction or guilty plea. If you are facing criminal charges, you should protect your freedom and your future by contacting an experienced criminal defense attorney right away.

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