Trump may welcome an arrest, but the process is unfair for too many Americans | Opinion

·4 min read

If he’s arrested, Donald Trump will go alone into history as the first president ever criminally charged, but at the same time he’ll join a group with a huge membership – the millions of Americans with an arrest record.

While many think the elusive “Teflon Don” is overdue for a mug shot, a fingerprinting and an arraignment, too many ordinary Americans are funneled into the legal process for offenses that could have been handled with a simple citation.

Civil rights advocates complain about “over-policing” in heavily minority communities that unnecessarily saddles young people with a criminal record for minor offenses, but the problem extends to white youth as well.

Robert Brame, a professor of criminology at the University of Maryland and a former faculty member at UNC-Charlotte, helped conduct one of the few research projects on the prevalence of arrest. It analyzed results from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997 run by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The survey involved more than 6,000 young people of both sexes and assorted races. It found that by age 23, 30 percent of the group had been arrested for something other than a minor traffic offense.

Statistics compiled by the UNC School of Government on North Carolina arrests between 2014 and 2021 show that of 12.6 million charges in the criminal justice system, more than 10 million were for non-violent misdemeanors. When issuing a charge for a misdemeanor offense, officers have discretion to do so by issuing a citation or making a custodial warrantless arrest. Incidents that resulted in arrest included more than 50,000 arrests for possession of one-half ounce or less of marijuana or possession of marijuana paraphernalia; 47,323 arrests for second degree trespassing; 27,201 arrests for driving with a revoked license and 1,870 arrests for begging.

In 2020, the North Carolina Association of Chiefs of Police, the UNC School of Government Criminal Justice Innovation Lab and others conducted a pilot project in Apex, Elizabeth City, Wilmington and Winston-Salem to test using citations in lieu of arrest for low-level offenses. The project’s results were limited by COVID, a police pullback in response to the George Floyd protests and what the researchers described as “limited patrol officer buy-in.” But the results did show that officers saved an average of more than 90 minutes per encounter when they issued a citation rather than made an arrest.

Being taken into custody creates a record, even when charges are dismissed. That record can show up on background checks and impede a person’s ability to be hired, admitted to college or obtain a lease. The weight of an arrest record is further magnified as it endures on the internet.

Robert Stewart, a University of Maryland sociological criminologist who studies the collateral effects of contact with the criminal justice system, said of the power to arrest, “When the one tool police have is a hammer, everything is a nail.” He said encouraging broader use of citations for minor offenses would reduce the the creation of long-term records.

“We’re asking people to make changes in their lives and not do these things again, yet we hang all these reminders on them,” he said. “And everywhere they turn, they have to negotiate with this past issue. It makes it more difficult for people to be successful the way we want them to be.”

Felony charges generally require an arrest, but citations should be used more often for misdemeanors. Taking people into custody for minor transgressions is often a punishment that exceeds the offense.

The result of using the arrest process so broadly is bulging jails and crowded courts. Bail reform is addressing part of the problem. Policies that divert the mentally ill, addicts and troubled veterans out of the criminal justice system are good ideas. But those remedies address situations that begin with an arrest, a heavy tool too often applied when a citation would suffice.

Trump reportedly wants to be arrested because he thinks it will rally his supporters and energize his presidential campaign. But for many people arrested on misdemeanor charges, being taken into custody is excessive treatment that’s too costly to them and to the criminal justice system. Lesser charges need a lesser degree of enforcement.

Associate opinion editor Ned Barnett can be reached at 919-829-4512, or nbarnett@