A second chance — if you can pay for it

The surest way to avoid the collateral consequences of conviction is to avoid conviction in the first place. Pre-trial diversion programs offer defendants a chance to do just that, by having the charges against them dismissed before they even reach court. But there is often a catch that puts this benefit out of reach for those of limited means.

Diversion programs are controlled by prosecutors, who may condition dismissal of charges on the defendant’s participation in educational, rehabilitation, or community service programs for which the defendant must foot the bill.  These costs, along with attendant administrative fees set by prosecutors, can price out many of the low-income defendants who stand to benefit most from the second chance that diversion promises.  Even if defendants can come up with the necessary cash for participation, they may find the promised relief illusory.  Because prosecutors have near total control over the programs, deciding who is eligible and what is required, defendants must first convince prosecutors that they are worth taking a chance on before the opportunity will be offered.

An illuminating two-part expose’ in last week’s New York Times (“No Money, No Mercy“) takes a close look at how these programs operate, and the fate of defendants who have worked to earn a second chance but find themselves ultimately unable to afford it or benefit from it. Since prosecutorial control of the programs obscures their operation to a large extent, The Times “gathered information, statutes and fee schedules on 225 diversion programs in 37 states and interviewed more than 150 prosecutors, defense lawyers, defendants and experts,” to develop a sobering national overview.  The piece documents how the burden of a criminal record is imposed disproportionately and unfairly on people of color and limited means through unreviewable decisions of prosecutors, effectively re-creating the peonage that replaced slavery immediately after the Civil War.

You can read The Times’ full expose, “After a Crime, the Price of a Second Chance,” here. The second part of the series focuses on Dothan County, Alabama to detail some of the more egregious racial and class inequities that result from high fees and prosecutorial control.  See “Alabama Prosecutor Sets the Penalties and Fills the Coffers,” linked here.   A follow-up piece published on January 6 (“Forcing a District Attorney’s Hand”) documents the difficulties experienced by the Times reporter and photographer in obtaining the Dothan County story.  The Times published a Letter to the Editor commenting on the series by CCRC Executive Director Margaret Love.

We summarize the broad points of the series below, but highly recommend reading it in full.

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Housing restrictions across the country

house-keyThe revolving door between prison and homelessness is an unfortunate and well-documented feature of our criminal justice system. But it is not just those returning from prison who are at risk. Even a conviction for a relatively minor offense – and, in some instances, simply being charged with one – can result in a lifetime of housing insecurity, both for individuals and their families.  These problems are the focus of an excellent new report from the National HIRE Network that examines criminal record-based housing restrictions across the country and describes what is being done by a few jurisdictions and the federal government to put the brakes on the cycle of conviction, homelessness, and recidivism.

Although record-based housing restrictions are implemented by both private and public housing providers, it is public housing restrictions that pose the biggest risk to individuals with criminal records since their statistically lower income makes them more likely to rely on federal subsidies for housing. Attached to those subsidies are a number of federally-mandated restrictions, including a permanent and automatic ban for anyone convicted of producing methamphetamine in public housing or of a sex offense requiring lifetime registration, and permissible eviction followed by a three-year bar (that may be reduced) for drug-related criminal activity.

But, as the report discusses, those federal restrictions are just the beginning. Federal law explicitly permits subsidized housing providers to reject applicants if a household member has engaged in criminal activity that is violent, drug-related, or that “would adversely affect the health, safety, or right to peaceful enjoyment of the premises” and that was committed within a “reasonable time” before applying. That loose standard gives providers enormous discretion to determine who gets in and who gets shut out:

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NC sex offender exclusion law held unconstitutional

ncsealcolorLast week the Fourth Circuit held unconstitutional two key provisions of a North Carolina law that made it a felony for sex offenders to be within 300 feet of certain premises that are “intended primarily for the use, care, or supervision of minors” or on premises where minors “gather for regularly scheduled educational, recreational, or social programs.”

The three-judge panel held that the first provision was overbroad under the First Amendment, while the second was unconstitutionally vague.  Interestingly, the state more or less ceded the First Amendment issue by failing to offer any evidence to meet its burden of proof regarding whether the law advanced the state’s interest in protecting minors.  This despite the fact that the district court warned the state in advance that failing to offer such evidence would be fatal to its defense of the provision.

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Federal judges challenge collateral consequences

Federal judges have begun speaking out about the burdens imposed by severe collateral consequences and the limited ability of courts to mitigate the resulting harm.  This is particularly true in the Eastern District of New York, where some judges have openly lamented the lack of statutory federal expungement authority and have used their opinions and orders to call upon the legislature to ensure that those with criminal records are given a fair shot at success.  Among the more vocal critics of collateral consequences is recently retired Judge John Gleeson, who last year took the extraordinary step of expunging one woman’s criminal record despite acknowledged uncertainty about his authority to do so.  In another case, Judge Gleeson crafted an alternative more transparent form of relief, a federal “certificate of rehabilitation.”  (You can find our extensive coverage of these cases here).

In a new article titled “Judicial Challenges to the Collateral Impact of Criminal Convictions: Is True Change in the Offing?,” Nora Demleitner takes a look at how the criticisms of members of the federal bench may shape the framework in which second chance laws and policies are considered, both at the legislative and judicial level, and how they may or may not affect the prospect of significant reform.

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New role for veep: chief clemency adviser?

A forthcoming article in the Harvard Journal of Law and Policy argues that the federal pardon process ought to be restructured to make the vice president the president’s chief clemency adviser.  Paul Larkin of the Heritage Foundation proposes that pardon recommendations ought to be made by an board chaired by the vice president located in the Executive Office of the President.  This intriguing idea may appeal to the Trump Administration, particularly since the new vice president has had some experience with pardoning as governor of Indiana.

Here is the abstract of the article:

The need for reconsideration of the federal clemency process is a real one, and there is a consensus that the Justice Department should no longer play its traditional doorkeeper role. Using the vice president as the new chief presidential clemency adviser offers the president several unique benefits that no other individual can supply without having enjoyed a prior close personal relationship with the chief executive. Whoever is sworn into office at noon on January 20, 2017, as the nation’s 45th President should seriously consider using as his principal clemency adviser the person who was sworn into the vice presidency immediately beforehand. The president, clemency applicants, and the public might just benefit from that new arrangement.

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Expungement in Pennsylvania explained

imagesPennsylvania has been active in recent years in expanding its judicial relief mechanisms, though it still has a long way to go to catch up to states like Kentucky, Missouri, and New Jersey, which have in the past 12 months extended their expungement laws to some felonies and/or reduced waiting periods.  No one has been more active and effective in the effort to increase the availability of “clean slate” judicial remedies than Sharon Dietrich, Litigation Director for Community Legal Services of Philadelphia.   Sharon has written a comprehensive guide to existing authorities on expungement and sealing in her state, which also discusses pending bills that would extend these laws.  The abstract follows:

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Manslaughter plea vacated to avoid licensing bar

A former University of Maryland student who pled guilty last April to throwing a punch that resulted in the death of a fellow student, has been allowed the benefit of a nonconviction disposition that will likely result in the expungement of his record. According to a report in the Washington Post,

Prince George’s County Judge Albert W. Northrop ordered the manslaughter conviction of Arasp Biparva in the 2014 killing of Jack Godfrey vacated. The judge also granted Biparva probation before judgment, which means the charges can later be expunged from public records.

The modified sentence will help Biparva, 25, as he finds a job in accounting, according to his attorney.

“Currently the conviction will interfere with the application process and prevent Mr. Biparva from obtaining the certifications he needs to advance his career,” his attorney, Barry Helfand, said in a request for the modified sentence.

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SCOTUS to review two collateral consequences cases

Most of the public interest in the Supreme Court’s cert grants on Friday focused on the transgender bathroom case from Virginia. But the Court also granted cert in two cases involving collateral consequences: one a First Amendment challenge to a North Carolina law barring a registered sex offender from internet access; and the other whether a man convicted in California of having consensual sex with his underage girlfriend committed an “aggravated felony” subjecting him to deportation. Here are the SCOTUSblog descriptions of the two cases:

Among the court’s other grants today, Packingham v. North Carolina is the case of Lester Packingham, a North Carolina man who became a registered sex offender after he was convicted, at the age of 21, of taking indecent liberties with a minor. Six years after Packingham’s conviction, North Carolina enacted a law that made it a felony for registered sex offenders to access a variety of websites, from Facebook to The New York Times and YouTube. Packingham was convicted of violating this law after a police officer saw a Facebook post in which Packingham celebrated, and gave thanks to God for, the dismissal of a traffic ticket. The justices today agreed to review Packingham’s contention that the law violates the First Amendment.

In Esquivel-Quintana v. Lynch, the justices will make another foray into an area of law known as “crimmigration” — the intersection of immigration and criminal law. The petitioner in the case, Juan Esquivel-Quintana, was a lawful permanent resident of the United States in 2009, when he was charged with violating a California law that makes it a crime to have sexual relations with someone under the age of 18 when the age difference between the two people involved is more than three years; he had had consensual sex with his 16-year-old girlfriend when he was 20 and 21 years old. The federal government then sought to remove Esquivel-Quintana from the United States on the ground that his conviction constituted the “aggravated felony” of “sexual abuse of a minor.” The lower courts agreed with the federal government, but now the Supreme Court will decide.

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Felony disenfranchisement, state by state

217523Felony disenfranchisement has become a hot topic as election day looms, and rightfully so given the significant impact that conviction-based loss of voting rights has on the makeup of the electorate and the slim margins by which many national elections are decided.  In the perennial swing state of Florida, for example, over 10 percent of the entire adult population is barred from voting for life because of a felony conviction. Within that group lies an astounding 21.3 percent of the state’s African-American population.

Those numbers come from a new Sentencing Project report, 6 Million Lost Voters: State-Level Estimates of Felony Disenfranchisement, which attempts to determine just how many individuals are ineligible to vote because of a felony conviction in each state, and how those numbers have changed over time.  It estimates that 6.1 million individuals are ineligible to vote nationwide because of a felony conviction, and that 1 in 13 African-Americans are barred from the polls due to a conviction. 

Florida leads the nation in felony disenfranchisement, with Kentucky, Mississippi, and Tennessee close behind.  Kentucky and Virginia (another swing state) disenfranchise the largest share of their African-American population, at 26.2 percent and 21.9 percent, respectively, with Florida close behind at 21.3 percent.  The high level of disenfranchisement in these states is largely due to the fact that all but one (Tennessee) strip individuals convicted of felonies of their voting rights for life absent discretionary executive action. 

Even in states that restore the right to vote automatically, many convicted people assume they cannot vote and therefore do not register. 

The laws on felony disenfranchisement differ widely from state to state.  Our 50-state chart on the “Loss and Restoration of Civil Rights and Firearm Privileges” and our state-by-state profiles of restoration of rights provisions describe the law and policy on felony disenfranchisement in each state, as well as the mechanisms by which convicted individuals are restored to the franchise.  

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