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.
Demleitner argues that although these judicial challenges represent a significant change in practice, they do not represent a significant change in institutional thought. By hewing closely to traditional normative values about who is and who is not worthy of a second chance (individuals with non-violent offenses, no prior or subsequent criminal history, and a strong work history), courts signal only the desire to expand second chance laws and policies to meet conventional, and perhaps outmoded, notions of fairness regarding crime and punishment.
Demleitner suggests that we move toward an individualized and contextualized assessment of worthiness that is unconstrained by rigid categorical analyses. At the same time, however, she seems to concede “the legal, economic, and social constraints that make [the defendants in these cases] exemplary role models rather than set the expectation for all persons with a criminal record.” At the least, her approach seems inconsistent with mandatory collateral consequences, at least where there is no possibility of administrative waiver or relief. Unfortunately, that is a discussion that is unlikely to take place as long as we cling to a limited binary set of characteristics to determine who deserves a second chance and who does not.
The full abstract of the article, published in the New York Law Review Online, follows:
Judicial opposition to disproportionate sentences and the long-term impact of criminal records is growing, at least in the Eastern District of New York. With the proliferation and harshness of collateral consequences and the hurdles in overcoming a criminal record, judges have asked for greater proportionality and improved chances for past offenders to get a fresh start. The combined impact of punitiveness and a criminal record is not only debilitating to the individual but also to their families and communities.
A criminal case against a noncitizen who will be subject to deportation and a decade-long ban on reentry and three different requests for expungement will demonstrate how three federal judges struggled with the long-term effects of the current sentencing and collateral consequences regime. These cases exemplify both judicial creativity and judicial impotence, as the courts have to call upon the support of other actors within the executive and legislative branches for change, in these individual cases and systemically.
These judicial critics of the current approach argue within an emerging normative framework that is coming to dominate the societal discourse on punishment. Increasingly some offenders are deemed “worthy” of receiving our assistance in reintegration. They are generally nonviolent first offenders, those with an unblemished record save for the offense of conviction, those who have been gainfully employed or desperately want to work, and those who have cared for their children. They present no danger to the community, and their continued punishment may negatively impact them, their surroundings, and ultimately the country. On the other hand, those labeled violent or sex offenders or terrorists are being considered dangerous, unredeemable, and deserving of the harshness the criminal justice system has brought to bear on them. The specific categorization of offenses, the definitions of terms, and the categorization of offenders remain fluid, contingent, and subject to constant revision. Still, these judicial efforts expand on the incipient efforts at full reintegration of some of those with a criminal record. Whether their challenges will resonate with their colleagues and in other branches of government remains to be seen.
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