TIME justice

A Misdemeanor Conviction Is Not a Big Deal, Right? Think Again

Convictions for misdemeanors like drug possession often trigger the same longterm consequences in the form of legal hindrances that felonies do. And there are fewer ways to remove them from criminal records

Christian Watts made a bad decision in 2002, and he has been paying for it ever since. As a 31-year-old, Watts was working for a Las Vegas limousine service when he connected a friend with someone who had a supply of the illegal party drug MDMA, or ecstasy. Federal investigators who were tracking another drug dealer got wind of the deal, and charged him with felony possession. At the advice of his lawyers, he pleaded the conviction down to a misdemeanor, and served no jail time.

But he says he still feels imprisoned by his conviction. “It’s like a have a black mark on me that disqualifies me in the forum of public opinion,” says Watts, now 40, working as a dog walker and Crossfit trainer in Las Vegas, after spending the past decade earning an associates, bachelors and working toward his Master’s degree. “My life is stuck in a standstill.”

Watts is only one of the many Americans whose misdemeanor convictions have followed them along their road to redemption. And as President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder ramp up their efforts to restore the rights and opportunities of convicted felons as part of criminal justice reform efforts, little attention has been paid to the plight of those convicted of misdemeanors struggling to turn their lives around. “The single most dangerous thing people think is that if they get a conviction and don’t go to jail they won’t face issues,” says Norman Reimer, the executive director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. “Misdemeanor convictions can have serious impacts.”

Only about 10% of all federal convictions in 2010 were misdemeanors, but research shows the majority of people who find themselves in state criminal courts are facing charges for minor crimes like possession of marijuana or driving with a suspended license. Misdemeanor convictions, in fact, don’t always result in jail time. And yet, misdemeanor convictions can trigger the same legal hindrances, known as collateral consequences, as felonies. And there are fewer routes to expunging them from criminal records.

In Nevada alone, where Watts lives, a person convicted of a misdemeanor could potentially face over 200 federal and state consequences as a result of their conviction many of which bar employment and licenser for certain fields, according to an American Bar Association database. In all, there are over 45,000 state and federal consequences for convictions. “It affects housing rights, access to loans, family rights and a whole realm of things. It’s often called the secret sentence or the silent punishment,” says Reimer, whose organization will soon release a report on the impact of collateral consequences.

Although the government is taking aim at reducing both the prison population and the consequences facing those who commit felonies despite their release, the impact on those with misdemeanors flies under the radar. In fact, in the eyes of the federal government, “most civil disabilities imposed as the result of a federal conviction are triggered by conviction for a felony offense rather than a misdemeanor crime,” according to the Office of the Pardon attorney. And the office’s “limited resources,” the Department of Justice website reads, “are best utilized to review and process applications for pardon of federal convictions.” Despite the fact that criminals may find that the only remedy for their federal misdemeanor conviction is a Presidential pardon, petty criminals just aren’t bad enough to need to be completely forgiven. On the state level, things vary, but Reimer says for many crimes the options for purging things from criminal records are limited. Even when there is no connection between the crime and longterm consequence.

“It sends people down a route that limits their life chances and sets up conditions that can lead them to commit additional crime,” says Nazgol Ghandnoosh, a research analyst at the Sentencing Project. “It makes it hard for people to have stability in their life. It’s not good crime policy and it doesn’t help to promote public safety.”

There are many organizations working to curb the impact of criminal convictions, but few have turned their attention to the impact of misdemeanors. In fact, there is little research that dives deep into the impact collateral consequences have on non-felony convictions. Despite the fact that a minor conviction can get a permanent, legal resident deported. And for people like Watts, that disregard is unacceptable.

After a handful of months on house arrest and probation, Watts went back to school to try to get his life on track, first at a Nevada community college, then at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, using money he inherited from his late grandfather to afford tuition.

But employment did not follow. Because of the misdemeanor on his record, he says has been denied jobs, and was turned away by the National Guard.

“I constantly have to prove I’m not the bad guy this piece of paper says,” he says. “Felony and misdemeanors have little distinction in the effects on your life. The only real difference is the name.”

The district judge that sentenced Watts told him in 2011 the only way to clear it would be to be granted a presidential pardon, even as he praised Watts for working hard to bounce back. “I wish I had far more people before me who show the kind of self rehabilitation and effort that you’ve demonstrated,” said Judge Philip M. Pro. And not soon after, the judge stepped down from the bench to shake Watts’ hand. The judge told him, “There’s not many people that I’ve sentenced that I feel I can do that.”

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