Misdemeanor Convictions Cause Real Harm. New York Needs a New Approach

Getting convicted of a “minor offense” inflicts serious, long-term harm. The state can and must divert more people to counseling, group meetings, or other interventions.

Misdemeanor Convictions Cause Real Harm. New York Needs a New Approach

Getting convicted of a “minor offense” inflicts serious, long-term harm. The state can and must divert more people to counseling, group meetings, or other interventions.

A growing number of Americans now understand that misdemeanors, despite often being called “minor offenses,” can be devastating, especially for the poor and people of color. 

One misdemeanor can result in hefty fees and fines or jail time, and even cost you your job, professional license, or housing application. Misdemeanor convictions reduce people’s earnings by hundreds of thousands of dollars, roughly 16 percent annually, according to recent research by the Brennan Center for Justice. 

And misdemeanor convictions disproportionately affect Black people. In 2019, Black individuals accounted for 35 percent of New York State’s misdemeanor convictions, despite representing less than 20 percent of the state population. By the end of a career, a white person in the U.S. with a criminal conviction earns an average of $49,000 a year, while a similarly situated Black person who has no criminal conviction earns $39,000 a year.

Reducing the number of people who carry these charges—more than 45 million nationwide—is vital, and New York has developed tools to do just that. But one such tool —pretrial diversion, which allows someone cited for a misdemeanor to avoid being charged with the offense—is underutilized, underfunded, and at risk of collapse because of budget cuts. That’s unacceptable, especially during a pandemic, where thousands of cases have spread through New York’s jails and prisons, endangering the lives of incarcerated people and corrections staff. City and state leaders should be taking every step possible to reduce the risk of incarceration for misdemeanor convictions, and that includes funding and expanding these vital initiatives.

Pretrial diversion works like this: After a person is cited for an offense and before they have been officially charged, they are offered an opportunity to participate in some form of intervention, such as counseling or group meetings designed to confront—and change—the behaviors that led them to be arrested. Upon completion of the program, the prosecutor declines to pursue the case, and the person’s record stays clean, without the corresponding consequences that misdemeanor convictions carry. By providing services instead of punishment, pretrial diversion can help people get back on track and protect their economic futures. 

Until recently, one pretrial diversion program called Project Reset served all five boroughs in New York City. Like other initiatives, it aims to give people cited for specific misdemeanors—including shoplifting, trespassing, and other low-level, nonviolent offenses—the option of participating in interventions like counseling sessions or community service to resolve their cases without conviction. 

And it worked: By one count, Project Reset has helped at least 3,976 people avoid becoming further ensnared in the criminal legal system since 2015. Studies show that young people who completed the program were significantly less likely to be convicted of a new crime within a year, compared to a similar group of defendants. Additionally, program participants reported that Project Reset helped them develop skills to manage challenging situations and chart a better path forward for their lives.

Yet despite its success and efficacy, several branches of Project Reset lost funding in October. As a result, its branches in Brooklyn, Staten Island, and Queens eventually shut down, despite calls for support from all five of the city’s district attorneys. And more cuts could be coming. Funding for the Manhattan branch is only secured until August 2022, and the City Council has yet to fund another year for the Bronx.

Letting Project Reset dissolve would be a mistake. Now is the time for the City Council and other leaders across the state to evaluate diversion programs and consider how to adapt them to their own jurisdictions. Although most pretrial diversion programs focus on misdemeanors, it’s worth exploring whether they could be expanded to cover even some felony charges. 

This kind of intervention is inexpensive and cost-effective. New York City paid around $710,000 to run Project Reset in one borough in fiscal year 2020. That’s a small up-front cost that pales in comparison to the potential long-term savings, and the city should reinvest in June when the budget comes up for debate. Indeed, city and state leaders should develop more programs like Project Reset, and they must keep them fully funded. A misdemeanor conviction can permanently harm a person’s future. That should be our last resort.

Diversion programs can help reorient the criminal legal system away from a framework that prioritizes punishment and toward one focused on rehabilitation, redemption, human dignity, and economic stability—an important step toward truly ending mass incarceration and its consequences.

Jackie Fielding is the Robina Public Interest Scholar Fellow and Counsel with the Brennan Center’s Justice Program.

Chloe Sarnoff is a public policy analyst at Robin Hood, specializing in criminal justice reform and housing policy.

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