A lot of ink has been spilled investigating “mass incarceration,” the massive expansion in the scope of punishment and its subsequent social consequences. However, the largest arrest categories are for crimes below a felony level, which do not elicit a prison sentence. These “lower-level” criminal justice encounters involve misdemeanors or infractions of noncriminal codes. Issa Kohler-Hausmann, using over 2 years of field work in a New York City criminal court, investigates how “misdemeanor justice” – the criminal justice processing of lower level offenses – represents a form of social control, even though the majority of these sub-felony cases do not result in either a finding of guilt or a formal punishment.
Kohler-Hausmann argues that the criminal justice system extends its net of control through misdemeanor level cases through three techniques: marking, procedural hassle, and performance. The first procedure, marking, is an official mark on the defendant, most often in the form of a temporary rap sheet (which can be dismissed after a period of time). The mark allows the authorities to keep temporary “tabs” on the defendant, and restricts the defendant’s travel and immigration. Further, all open criminal matters in New York are accessible to the public through an online database. This can increase the stigmatizing reach of the criminal mark, as employers and landlords can access this data.
The second form of misdemeanor control, procedural hassle, involves the institutional “hurdles” necessary to obtain the dismissal of the mark. Defendants have to conform to the institutional demands of the court, for example, a mandatory court appearance (or a number of them) is accompanied by stress, lost work, child care costs, and often the neglect of other opportunities in order to comply with court dates. Additionally, the time from arrest to dismissal is defined by numerous encounters with state authority, which demand a level conformity and obedience.
The final penal technique offered by Kohler-Hausmann is performance. The threat of a lasting criminal mark and the demands of criminal justice procedures require the defendants to comply with the demands placed on them. For example, the performance of community service is a common prerequisite for a case dismissal. Overall, these techniques allow the criminal justice system to track and discipline alleged low-level offenders without the formal punishment of parole, prison, or jail, widening the system’s net of control.