Misdemeanor convictions seem unimportant, but they consume a big chunk of court time in the United States, and having a misdemeanor on your record can cause long-term problems.

Considered minor crimes, misdemeanors are those issues that carry a potential sentence of one year in prison or less. Of the nearly 12 million arrests made each year, some 40 percent were for traffic infractions, often misdemeanors. Many drug possession arrests, which constitute a significant segment of non-violent crime, are also charged as misdemeanors (and states are quickly passing laws to decriminalize things like marijuana possession altogether). That results in 1 in 53 adults or over 4.6 million in some sort of court-ordered probation or community supervision program each year. California alone sees over 900,000 arrests for misdemeanors each year, with about 175,000 for DUI and 175,000 for drug offenses. Although we see news stories about felony murder trials and high-profile crimes on television news, there are about 10 times as many misdemeanors working their way through the court system.

In court, misdemeanors may be adjudicated by a magistrate rather than a judge, yet if a person is a frequent offender, a misdemeanor charge may be elevated to felony level. The significant difference between crimes that are always charged as misdemeanors and those that are always felonies is violence: a violent offense is much more likely to be charged as a felony. Certain types of misdemeanors can also have specific consequences, such as a domestic violence conviction being used to deny a firearms permit.

Finding Misdemeanor Records

Official background checks are done by state authorities and may require fingerprints to process. This sort of background check details any criminal charges or sentences for misdemeanors, felonies, and civil cases. Juvenile records are not included, and some states may only include misdemeanor incidents from the past five years.

Everyone is eligible to check his or her own criminal history report for accuracy. Either contact the state police where you live or where you were arrested, or contact the consumer reporting agencies found on this list to determine if the information provided about you is correct: http://files.consumerfinance.gov/f/201604_cfpb_list-of-consumer-reporting-companies.pdf.

Unofficial background checks can be done online through services, providing extensive information based only on name, email, or telephone searches. These services are not a substitution for an official background check but allow you to find out if your neighbor, coworker, boyfriend, or teacher has a record of misdemeanor offenses, is on probation, has declared bankruptcy, and where he or she has lived. It can be used to link an email address to a previously unknown social media account, to find out more about where your acquaintance works, and perhaps uncover unknown accounts.

Misdemeanor Consequences

Time spent in jail or on probation as a result of a misdemeanor is only one of the consequences. Misdemeanor convictions can still have an impact on one's future options. Misdemeanors show up on criminal background checks in most states for several years unless they are expunged. The F.B.I. maintains a database of information used for things like gun permit applications, and that data shows more than 133,000 gun permits have been denied due to misdemeanor domestic violence convictions, and another 770,000 denied due to other misdemeanors or crimes.

A recent analysis of misdemeanor crime revealed that poor Black and Latino people are most likely to suffer serious repercussions due to arrests for minor crime. This resident category is more likely to be stopped without justification, and more likely to be jailed for nonpayment of court-imposed fines due to their economic status. Driver's licenses may be suspended for nonpayment of fines, which can result in losing a job and perpetuating a cycle of poverty. In some states, a Black person is six times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person.

New York City was one of the first jurisdictions to crack down on misdemeanor offenses as part of a "zero tolerance" philosophy. Those who tagged (graffiti) buildings, jumped subway turnstiles, littered, were intoxicated in public, and ran red lights were not ignored by police, who credited the crackdown with reducing overall crime in the city (while detractors complained that the police went too far, including racially profiling young men and compiling data on non-offenders).

There have been a few extreme cases of a person being held in jail for a misdemeanor because he or she couldn't make bail – for years.