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Several academics and advocates influential in criminal justice reform gathered Thursday for a conversation on the influence of misdemeanors on America’s criminal justice system — the topic of a new documentary premised on a Harvard Law School professor's book.
Published in December 2018, HLS professor Alexandra Natapoff’s book, “Punishment Without Crime: How Our Massive Misdemeanor System Traps the Innocent and Makes America More Unequal,” investigates the close relationship between misdemeanors and systemic injustices within the American criminal justice system. The book inspired a documentary produced by Brave New Films titled “Racially Charged: America’s Misdemeanor Problem," which the Law School screened virtually in advance of the panel discussion.
“For too long, misdemeanors have been ignored,” the book’s description reads. “But they are crucial to understanding our punitive criminal system and our widening economic and racial divides.”
On Thursday afternoon, the Law School hosted a screening of the 30-minute film, after which Natapoff joined a panel comprised of several contributors influential in the film-making process in addition to academics and political figures who are challenging the current model of America’s criminal justice system.
During the discussion, Natapoff said she believes the country is in a special moment to reckon with racial injustice.
“We are in an extraordinary national — indeed an international — conversation about the American criminal system, about structural racism, about police violence against Black people and against Black men in particular, and about how the misdemeanor system is making all of this worse,” Natapoff said.
Rachael Rollins, the District Attorney of Massachusetts’ Suffolk County — who Natapoff said has “influenced so much of the conversation around progressive prosecution” — said during the conversation that watching the documentary made her oscillate between “profound sorrow and rage,” citing the criminal justice system's treatment of Black people.
“Our community is tired of being murdered by the government that our taxes pay for, and then told to please relax and keep it down when it comes to our First Amendment right to protest,” Rollins said.
Harvard Kennedy School Professor of Criminal Justice Sandra Susan Smith, another panelist, said she believes the film masterfully depicted the “juxtaposition of the past and the present.”
“While talking about the more recent misdemeanors, you also told stories about Black folks who’ve experienced very similar kinds of harms 100 years ago,” Smith said. “There are different offenses that people are getting caught under, but the offenses are doing the same thing.”
Robert Greenwald, the founder of Brave New Films and the director of “Racially Charged,” said the documentay — and his production studio more broadly — aims to humanize societal issues and inspire viewers to become agents of change.
“Bear in mind that this is a tool so that everybody can do something in terms of educating, helping, inspiring,” Greenwald said. “What we try to do is put a face on policy and connect the dots, which makes it a face that helps us understand the systemic issues.”
Director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Justice Division Udi Ofer said understanding issues regarding misdemeanors is just one aspect to diagnosing injustice within America’s criminal justice system, which has roots in "broken windows" and zero tolerance policing.
“I think this film is amazing,” Ofer said. “But I don’t think we can talk about misdemeanors without also talking about broken windows policing, and the related policing strategies that have been implemented in the past four decades that have deliberately and proactively led to an increase in the number of misdemeanor arrests in the United States.”
Chris Lollie, a musician arrested on a misdemeanor charge who was featured in the documentary, said the film demonstrates that “even though we live in this millennia now, nothing’s really changed.”
“We just put Band-Aids over things and they rip off so easily,” Lollie said. “Making sure the conversation is always being had is definitely something we need to do, and this film does a great job at showing the history and the future, or the present of where we’re at right now.
“Hopefully, the future can be a big change,” he added.
—Staff writer Emmy M. Cho can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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