How prosecutors use collateral consequences

A new article published in the Georgetown Law Journal argues that collateral consequences are becoming a valuable tool for prosecutors in the plea bargaining process, enabling them to leverage their existing power to control the outcome of criminal cases.  In Prosecuting Collateral Consequences, Eisha Jain of the University of North Carolina law faculty attributes this trend to a new awareness of collateral consequences made possible by initiatives like the National Inventory of the Collateral Consequences of Conviction, which show that even minor convictions can trigger serious civil penalties.  She explains the “structural incentives” that offer prosecutors an opportunity to avoid or trigger important civil penalties, or to bargain for enhanced criminal penalties in exchange for circumventing a particularly unwelcome collateral consequence (like deportation or eviction).

Jain concludes that, for some prosecutors, “enforcing collateral consequences serves as an administratively efficient substitute for a criminal conviction” and a way to “promote their own policy preferences.”   In this fashion, prosecutors’ largely unreviewable discretion is extended to “an array of legal consequences, regulatory policies, and public interests.”

Here is the abstract:
Criminal law scholars have long agreed that prosecutors wield vast and largely unreviewable discretion in the criminal justice system. This Article argues that this discretion now extends beyond criminal penalties and broadly reaches civil public policy decisions, such as deportation and licensing. As a result of ubiquitous plea bargaining and collateral consequences — state-imposed civil penalties that are triggered by criminal convictions — prosecutors can deliberately exercise discretion to trigger or avoid important civil consequences. This aspect of prosecutorial discretion has been underexamined, partly because of a lack of awareness of collateral consequences. But as a result of important new initiatives designed to promote information about collateral consequences, prosecutors as well as defendants are becoming more likely to know that even minor convictions can trigger much more serious civil penalties. As some commentators have pointed out, prosecutors who are aware of collateral consequences may have powerful incentives to drop charges or otherwise structure pleas to minimize the likelihood of certain collateral consequences. But importantly, prosecutors also have strong structural incentives to take the opposite approach and reach pleas to maximize the likelihood of civil penalties. For some prosecutors, enforcing collateral consequences serves as an administratively efficient substitute for a criminal conviction, as a source of leverage, as a way to circumvent the requirements of criminal procedure, as a means of achieving deterrence or retribution, or as a way to promote their own public policy preferences. This Article develops an analytic framework for understanding the structural incentives that lead prosecutors to influence collateral consequences; exposes legal and ethical problems associated with plea bargaining in light of collateral consequences; and argues that collateral consequences can undermine important interests in transparency and accountability.

The present article is an important companion piece to Professor Jain’s 2014 article on Arrests as Regulation, in which she showed how mere arrests are increasingly being used systematically as a sorting and screening tool by noncriminal actors (including immigration authorities, landlords, employers, schools and child welfare agencies), not because they are the best tool but because they are easy and inexpensive to access.  We hope she will continue her interest in this emerging area of scholarship that has such value for practitioners.