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Alexandra Natapoff

  • How experts say to reform the confidential informant investigative process

    February 1, 2022

    Though confidential informants are often utilized by law enforcement agencies to produce more arrests, the lack of transparency around the process has long had experts concerned. In most cases, confidential informants are suspects that have been arrested or convicted for crimes of their own, but cut a deal with police and prosecutors to reduce their sentence in exchange for information that leads to a more valuable arrest. ... “Criminal law is highly tolerant of the secrecy and the confidentiality, and therefore the lack of transparency and accountability that goes with that in the use of informants,” said Harvard law professor and criminal justice expert Alexandra Natapoff. In some ways, Natapoff said, Texas has set an example on the issue.

  • Her Son Needed Help. First, He Had to Help the Police.

    January 4, 2022

    When Troy Howlett collapsed and died in his bedroom in Charles City, Virginia, on the morning of July 30, 2018, his mother, Donna Watson, was on vacation. It was a Monday, and 31-year-old Howlett was starting a new job that day. Watson, knowing her son was nervous about it, kept checking in, growing more worried as she got no response. Later that evening, having run out of reasons why her son wouldn’t or couldn’t call or text back, she asked a friend to look for him. When the friend found her son’s body, he told her it looked like his hands were locked in prayer. ... While Watson has turned to the courts for restitution, she’s also looking to the Virginia state legislature. Some states have adopted legislation to address the problem of unreliability of informants and the wrongful convictions that often result from their misinformation, according to Alexandra Natapoff, a professor at Harvard Law School and author of Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice. “But those reforms tended not to address the problem of the use of informants who have substance use disorders,” Natapoff told me, “either from the perspective of innocent people who were convicted on that basis or from the perspective of the vulnerable informants themselves, who were often pressured into becoming informants at risk to themselves or risk to their recovery, or had their addiction worsen in their performance of their jobs.”

  • Misdemeanors ‘Can Haunt A Person For Life’: Why LA’s DA Stopped Charging Many Of Them

    December 7, 2021

    When Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón took office a year ago, he directed the county’s nearly 1,000 prosecutors to decline charges involving 13 categories of low-level misdemeanors, including driving on a suspended license, drug and paraphernalia possession, and public intoxication. The sweeping new policy called for misdemeanor charges only when there are extenuating circumstances, like repeat offenses. An LAist review of millions of criminal cases found that the reform, dubbed Special Directive 20-07, has led to a dramatic decline in the rate at which the DA charges misdemeanors. ... Progressive academics and community groups say the changes are necessary to address a bloated and unequal criminal justice system, and that low-level criminal charges affect thousands of Angelenos as well as their families and communities. "The record of the misdemeanor arrest can haunt a person for life,” said Harvard law professor Alexandra Natapoff, the author of the book "Punishment Without Crime: How Our Massive Misdemeanor System Traps the Innocent and Makes America More Unequal." People accused of misdemeanors in California are typically arrested or given a citation. If found guilty, a defendant can face a sentence of up to one year in jail and a fine of $1,000. “It can ruin their credit, it can disable their ability to get a job, or a loan, or housing,” Natapoff said. “There’s a whole world of consequences that far outstrip the seriousness of the underlying offense.”

  • High angle shot of young people sitting at the table with books and laptops..

    ‘Talent is equally distributed; opportunity is not’

    November 30, 2021

    Future-L, a pilot collaboration between Harvard Law School and the National Education Equity Lab, introduces high-achieving high school students from historically underserved backgrounds to the legal field.

  • Don’t do it, Jackson: Misdemeanor jail would disproportionately affect residents of color

    November 17, 2021

    Contrary to what local leaders are telling you, building a new 150-bed “misdemeanor jail” is not going to make Jackson safer. In fact, it will make things worse. ... Further support for saying no to proponents of a new misdemeanor jail is found in Harvard Law School Professor Alexandra Natapoff’s recent book “Punishment Without Crime: How Our Massive Misdemeanor System Traps the Innocent and Makes America More Unequal.”

  • 12 books that best explain America’s incarceration system, according to criminal justice lawyers

    August 31, 2021

    "Punishment Without Crime: How Our Massive Misdemeanor System Traps the Innocent and Makes America More Unequal" by Alexandra Natapoff, so beautifully tells the story of what tiny things people get dragged into the system for," says Rahman. This highly technical book looks at how misdemeanors create massive inequalities and drag non-dangerous members of the public into prisons.

  • The Pandemic Prompted Marilyn Mosby To Stop Prosecuting Low-Level Crimes. Will Other DAs Follow?

    April 13, 2021

    About a year ago, the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s office stopped prosecuting several low-level offenses—minor drug possession, prostitution, and minor traffic offenses—to reduce the flow of people in and out of local jails and slow the spread of COVID-19. In March, State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced she was making the changes permanent. The decision to stay the course, Mosby told The Appeal, was clear...Researchers and advocates have argued for years that more attention needs to be paid to the misdemeanor system, which ensnares millions of people each year but generally gets less public attention than the felony system. Roughly 80 percent of all criminal cases—more than 13 million annually—are misdemeanors, Harvard Law Professor Alexandra Natapoff told The Appeal. “We cannot reduce mass incarceration without reducing the misdemeanor net that sweeps the vast majority of people into the system in the first place,” she said. New declination policies, she added, “are extraordinarily important” to that effort.

  • Study finds not prosecuting misdemeanors reduces defendants’ subsequent arrests

    March 29, 2021

    A study examining the effect of declining to prosecute lower-level nonviolent offenses — a signature policy adopted by Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins that has drawn both praise and scorn — suggests the approach leads to significantly less future involvement by those defendants in the criminal justice system. The new study, which looked at cases handled by the Suffolk County DA’s office going back to 2004, found that those defendants not prosecuted for lower-level misdemeanor cases were 58 percent less likely to face a criminal complaint over the following two years than those who faced prosecution for similar charges...Alexandra Natapoff, a professor at Harvard Law School who has extensively studied the prosecution of misdemeanor offenses, said the study “gives empirical teeth to just how costly and counterproductive low-level misdemeanor arrests and court criminal convictions can be.” Natapoff, author of the 2018 book ‘Punishment Without Crime: How Our Massive Misdemeanor System Traps the Innocent and Makes America More Unequal’, said we have paid far too little attention to the harmful impact on individuals and communities of prosecuting misdemeanors, which account for 80 percent of all criminal cases in the US.

  • U.S. bail-bond insurers spend big to keep defendants paying

    March 26, 2021

    Insurance companies have spent $17 million to defeat proposals to weaken or abolish the for-profit bail industry in the United States, a system that brings insurers $15 billion in business a year, according to a Reuters analysis of campaign contributions, company financial statements and interviews with more than three dozens experts on criminal justice, campaign finance or bail. The spending has jumped more than 10-fold since 2010 as insurers have led the industry’s lobbying effort, targeting laws in more than a dozen states, the analysis shows. The industry opposition comes as President Joe Biden and other Democrats have renewed calls to dismantle what they describe as a biased system that harms mostly low-income people...The coalition’s most recent success was in California, the nation’s biggest bail market, home to 3,200 bail agents and 21 bail insurers. In 2018, the state passed a law, known as SB-10, to replace cash bail with a system that would give judges - aided by a computer algorithm - discretion to decide which defendants posed a danger or flight risk. Most minor offenses would not require the assessment. Such minor offenses, known as misdemeanors, account for about 80% of U.S. criminal cases filed annually - and thus the bulk of detention and bail decisions, said Alexandra Natapoff, a Harvard Law School professor who has studied the extent and impact of such arrests.

  • Racially Charged: America’s Misdemeanor Problem

    March 1, 2021

    Join the Harvard Law School Library on March 11 for a live screening and panel discussion of “Racially Charged: America’s Misdemeanor Problem,” a new documentary about the racial history and modern discrimination of the American misdemeanor system. The film was inspired by HLS Professor Alexandra Natapoff’s book, “Punishment Without Crime: How Our Massive Misdemeanor System Traps the Innocent and Makes America More Unequal.” The screening is also part of the Policing in America lecture series at HLS.

  • Movie poster showing a man's face looking at the camera, small black and white photos of men and women behind him. Movie title reads: Racially CHarged: America's Misdemeanor Problem.

    Racially Charged: America’s Misdemeanor Problem

    March 1, 2021

    Virtual film premiere and panel discussion of new documentary inspired by HLS Professor Alexandra Natapoff’s book, “Punishment Without Crime.”

  • Solving racial disparities in policing

    February 24, 2021

    It seems there’s no end to them. They are the recent videos and reports of Black and brown people beaten or killed by law enforcement officers, and they have fueled a national outcry over the disproportionate use of excessive, and often lethal, force against people of color, and galvanized demands for police reform...Alexandra Natapoff, Lee S. Kreindler Professor of Law, sees policing as inexorably linked to the country’s criminal justice system and its long ties to racism. “Policing does not stand alone or apart from how we charge people with crimes, or how we convict them, or how we treat them once they’ve been convicted,” she said. “That entire bundle of official practices is a central part of how we govern, and in particular, how we have historically governed Black people and other people of color, and economically and socially disadvantaged populations.” ... Retired U.S. Judge Nancy Gertner also notes the need to reform federal sentencing guidelines, arguing that all too often they have been proven to be biased and to result in packing the nation’s jails and prisons... “The disparity in the treatment of crack and cocaine really was backed up by anecdote and stereotype, not by data,” said Gertner, a lecturer at HLS. “There was no data suggesting that crack was infinitely more dangerous than cocaine. It was the young Black predator narrative.” ... At Harvard Law School, students have been studying how an alternate 911-response team might function in Boston. “We were trying to move from thinking about a 911-response system as an opportunity to intervene in an acute moment, to thinking about what it would look like to have a system that is trying to help reweave some of the threads of community, a system that is more focused on healing than just on stopping harm” said HLS Professor Rachel Viscomi, who directs the Harvard Negotiation and Mediation Clinical Program and oversaw the research.

  • Supreme Court to debate whether misdemeanors can be a foot in the door for warrantless home search

    February 23, 2021

    Arthur Lange was 100 feet from his driveway when the California patrol officer behind him flipped on his flashing lights. Rather than stop, Lange turned toward his Sonoma County home, pulled into his garage and closed the door. What happened over the next few seconds prompted years of litigation and a case to be argued Wednesday at the Supreme Court with sweeping implications for police power...Lange's case comes to the court at a moment of tension between police and communities of color after the police killing last year of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man. The incident, and others like it, prompted nationwide protests and some riots over the summer, forcing a national discussion about racism and police use of force. One of those incidents was the 2020 shooting death of 26-year-old Breonna Taylor, which occurred after police entered her Louisville, Ky., apartment during a drug investigation. Police had obtained a "no-knock" warrant, allowing them to conduct a search without notification. The city subsequently banned no-knock warrants. Some observers said expanding the circumstances under which a police officer may enter a home without a warrant could exacerbate the fraught relationship. "It wouldn't open the door, it would open the flood gates to police entry into a home," said Alexandra Natapoff, a Harvard Law professor who has written widely on the proliferation of misdemeanor crimes. "It would seem to be exactly the backward response to everything we have learned from George Floyd and Black Lives Matter."

  • Close up of metal handcuffs on top of pile of one hundred dollar bills.

    Banking on crime: The economic contours of policing in America

    February 18, 2021

    Experts discuss the myriad ways money and wealth influence criminal processes and outcomes as part of the yearlong "Policing in America" colloquium series, led by Harvard Law Professors Alexandra Natapoff and Andrew Manuel Crespo.

  • Handcuffs on fingerprints document

    Alexandra Natapoff on how our massive misdemeanor system makes America more unequal

    January 13, 2021

    Harvard Law Professor Alexandra Natapoff is an award-winning legal scholar and criminal justice expert.

  • Molly Brady wearing a bright red jacket sits in front of a computer and teaches her class in Zoom

    2020 in pictures

    January 5, 2021

    A look back at the year at HLS.

  • Too big to jail: the Colombian drug lord who snitched his way to freedom

    December 9, 2020

    If you were walking the streets of Las Águilas, an upmarket neighbourhood of Mexico City, in the early hours of February 28th 1995, you might have noticed a collection of casually dressed people up on the rooftops. Perhaps you’d have mistaken them for stargazers or late-night revellers. In fact they were a crack team of snipers, settling into place for an extraordinary operation...The target was Raúl Salinas de Gortari, a wealthy businessman and elder brother of Mexico’s former president. Salinas’s alleged crime? Assassinating his one time brother-in-law, a political rival...According to Alexandra Natapoff, a law professor at the Harvard Law School, who studies police informants, “people who are facing the deprivation of their liberty and punishment turn out to be extraordinarily creative, sophisticated and entrepreneurial about fabricating stories.” They frame “other individuals and doing anything they can in order to gain their own liberty.” There are also incentives for those in authority to believe informants, because they need to bring in cases. “This dependence can become so great that it creates a sort of perverse romance: ‘falling in love with your rat’,” Natapoff writes in her book “Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice”. Once agents are invested in a story they may find it difficult to reject that narrative in the face of inconvenient evidence.

  • criminal justice illustrations

    ‘This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for change’

    November 19, 2020

    HLS faculty on COVID-19 and the pressing questions of racism, racial injustice, and abuse of power that have driven this difficult year—and that are the focus of three new lecture series at the school.

  • Americans are hungry and desperate. California shouldn’t respond by cracking down on food theft.

    October 26, 2020

    An op-ed by Alexandra NatapoffThe novel coronavirus pandemic is making many Americans poorer and hungrier. Parents and children across the country report going to bed hungry. In California, tens of thousands of people now depend on food banks from San Francisco to Los Angeles to San Diego, where the lines of waiting cars stretch for miles. In the face of this global crisis, the state should be protecting the vulnerable, not cracking down on the desperate. But by Nov. 3 in this election, California voters may ratchet up the punishment for stealing food and other necessities. Proposition 20would, among other things, elevate certain types of thefts from misdemeanors into potential felonies with longer sentences. It would create harsher shoplifting penalties for people with criminal records. It would also create harsher penalties for people who shoplift with someone else more than once — for example, if two parents were to steal diapers on two occasions. Prop. 20 is a broad tough-on-crime bill with numerous provisions, and its new theft rules do not explicitly mention food. But grocery retailers clearly expect it to affect people who steal food, diapers and other necessities. Supermarket chains such as Albertsons Safeway, Ralphs and Costco have contributed $100,000, $91,800 and $50,000 to the “Yes on 20” campaign, respectively. High-end gourmet grocery stores like Bristol Farms and Gelson’s contributed $12,600. Prop. 20 represents a kind of punitive backslide for California. For the past few years, the state has been a national leader in working to empty its prisons and reduce penalties for low-level crimes. Prop. 20 would undo some of that progress at a moment of extraordinary social vulnerability.

  • High Court to Review Warrantless Searches for Misdemeanors

    October 20, 2020

    The Supreme Court agreed to review whether law enforcement can enter a home without a warrant in hot pursuit of someone suspected of committing a misdemeanor...The court has ruled that officers can conduct such pursuits without warrants when investigating felonies but not minor traffic violations. This case presents something in the middle: misdemeanor pursuits. The dispute will be argued later this term and likely decided by sometime in June...Misdemeanors are “by far the most common basis for arrest,” Arthur Lange said in his petition to the justices, filed by the Stanford Supreme Court Litigation Clinic, a successful repeat player at the court. Lange was convicted of DUI after an officer followed him into his Sonoma, Calif., driveway. The officer stuck his foot under the garage door to stop it from closing and entered Lange’s garage. Lange’s motion to suppress was denied. He wants the court to reject a categorical rule allowing such pursuits for misdemeanors, which he said in his petition “contradicts the Court’s exigent-circumstances precedent, ignores traditional common-law limits on warrantless entries, and allows officers investigating trivial offenses to invade the privacy of all occupants of a home even when no emergency prevents them from seeking a warrant.” The case is significant on a number of fronts, said Harvard Law School professor Alexandra Natapoff, whose book on misdemeanors and the criminal justice system was cited in Lange’s petition. “It’s important because the privacy interests at stake are enormous,” she said. “It’s also extremely important because it represents the court turning its attention to an underappreciated area of criminal law enforcement that is enormous.”

  • Night Time Police Intervention

    A ‘reckoning’ for policing in America

    September 23, 2020

    In the first of a seven-part series about policing in America, experts discuss how this moment may be an inflection point.

  • Who’s really inside America’s jails?

    August 4, 2020

    According to a 2020 report by the Prison Policy Initiative, 74% of people in American jails have not been convicted of a crime. Sometimes this is because they’re considered a flight risk or danger to society, but the majority of individuals in jail are there because they can’t afford bail. And while inside, they’re often given a choice: plead guilty and get released, or stay in jail until a trial is scheduled, and hope they’re proven innocent. Most people take the plea bargain. The idea that individuals are innocent until proven guilty is supposed to be at the heart of our criminal justice system. But in reality, it’s not, says Alexandra Natapoff, a professor of law at Harvard University. “We are letting the pressures of the criminal system decide who will sustain a conviction,” she says. “So we are already committed, in some terrible sense, to punishing the innocent.”

  • A straw hat with sunglasses on top of a pile of books on the sand, illustration of clouds, birds, and water in the background.

    Harvard Law faculty summer book recommendations

    July 30, 2020

    Looking for something to add to your summer book list? HLS faculty share what they’re reading.

  • Less Punishment, More Justice

    July 6, 2020

    The mass protests spurred by George Floyd’s killing have been more sustained and widespread than any this country has seen before in response to police abuse. When the initial ones prompted even more police violence—officers driving cars into peaceful demonstrators or beating them with truncheons, using chemical agents and flash grenades to clear crowds for a presidential photo op, pepper-spraying young and old alike—the aggression, much of it captured on video, only inspired more people to join the protests...What police officers spend most of their time doing is enforcing minor offenses, known as misdemeanors. Alexandra Natapoff’s Punishment Without Crime, a damning portrait of the oft-neglected world of misdemeanor enforcement, suggests that changing how we treat such offenses may be the most effective way to reduce unnecessary and costly police–citizen encounters. Scholars, lawyers, and crime-show writers don’t generally pay much attention to misdemeanors. Jaywalking and disorderly conduct don’t make for nail-biting drama or fundamental moral dilemmas. But it’s the misdemeanor system that affects by far the most Americans...Bold reform along these lines is possible—if the political will exists. At the moment, it does. But it often won’t. The politics of crime will far more often favor “tough” over “smart” crime policies. As the Harvard law professor and former deputy attorney general Phil Heyman has remarked, “It takes a little time to explain why one thing’s smart and the other thing isn’t. It doesn’t take any time at all to explain why one thing’s tougher than the next.” The tilt toward toughness is also driven by the fact that the institutional voices on crime policy—police unions, prosecutors, and prison officials—all have a vested interest in promoting longer sentences, more discretion, and more resources for the criminal law–industrial complex.

  • Daphna Renan, Elizabeth Papp Kamali and Alexandra Natapoff.

    Scholars bring wide-ranging expertise and experience

    July 1, 2020

    Effective July 1, two faculty members were promoted and a new scholar joined the Harvard Law School faculty.

  • Alexandra Natapoff

    Criminal law scholar Alexandra Natapoff joins Harvard Law School

    July 1, 2020

    Alexandra Natapoff, a leading expert in criminal law and procedure, informants, public defense, and law and inequality, joins the Harvard Law faculty on July 1.

  • Law Professor On Misdemeanor Offenses And Racism In The Criminal System

    June 15, 2020

    The police killings of George Floyd, Eric Garner and other black men and women began with allegations of a minor offense, such as passing a counterfeit $20 bill or selling individual, untaxed cigarettes. Misdemeanors — these types of low-level criminal offenses — account for about 80% of all arrests and 80% of state criminal dockets, says Alexandra Natapoff, a law professor at the University of California at Irvine and author of Punishment Without Crime. "It's surprising to many people to realize that misdemeanors — these low-level, often chump-change offenses that many of us commit routinely without even noticing it — make up the vast majority of what our criminal system does," Natapoff tells NPR's Ari Shapiro on All Things Considered. "The offenses can include everything from traffic offenses to spitting, loitering, trespassing, all the way up to more serious offenses like DUI or many domestic violence offenses," she says. "It's ... the vast majority of ways that individuals interact with police." Natapoff says the misdemeanor system has "not gotten its fair share of blame" for the racism of the U.S. criminal justice system and how it disproportionately affects people of color. "This is the beginning of how we sweep people of color, and African Americans in particular, into our criminal system," she says, through over-policing black neighborhoods, racial profiling and practices like stop-and-frisk.