Pretrial Justice Institute
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Unjustified: Reckoning with the Racialized Legacy of Misdemeanors in the United States

This paper explores the history and impact of misdemeanors on the pretrial process—and starting points for developing antiracist solutions.


The vast majority of people awaiting trial in the U.S. are charged with misdemeanors, which comprise 80% of court dockets around the country. 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.

This paper explores the historical context of misdemeanor offenses and their impact on the pretrial process specifically, and then discusses relevant reforms grounded in antiracist principles. Those principles include partnership between system actors and community members, and solutions grounded in equity, accountability and safety, rather than 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.” — Alexandra Natopoff, Lee S. Kreindler Professor of Law, Harvard Law School

“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? Do we want reform or are we talking about something different?” — Michael Finley, The W. Haywood Burns Institute

"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." — Manohar Raju, San Francisco Public Defender