Author Archives: CCRC Staff

Florida felony disenfranchisement law held unconstitutional

This evening the district court issued its opinion in Jones v. DeSantis finding, as expected, that Florida’s system for restoring voting rights to those convicted of a felony is unconstitutional. The opinion is at this link, and its summary by the court is below. Additional details of the decision and the court’s order are reported in this article from the New York Times, and we will report further on the case, including next steps, in a few days.

The State of Florida has adopted a system under which nearly a million otherwise-eligible citizens will be allowed to vote only if they pay an amount of money. Most of the citizens lack the financial resources to make the required payment. Many do not know, and some will not be able to find out, how much they must pay. For most, the required payment will consist only of charges the State imposed to fund government operations—taxes in substance though not in name.

The State is on pace to complete its initial screening of the citizens by 2026, or perhaps later, and only then will have an initial opinion about which citizens must pay, and how much they must pay, to be allowed to vote. In the meantime, year after year, federal and state elections will pass. The uncertainty will cause some citizens who are eligible to vote, even on the State’s own view of the law, not to vote, lest they risk criminal prosecution.

This pay-to-vote system would be universally decried as unconstitutional but for one thing: each citizen at issue was convicted, at some point in the past, of a felony offense. A state may disenfranchise felons and impose conditions on their reenfranchisement. But the conditions must pass constitutional scrutiny. Whatever might be said of a rationally constructed system, this one falls short in substantial respects.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit has already ruled, in affirming a preliminary injunction in this very case, that the State cannot condition voting on payment of an amount a person is genuinely unable to pay. See Jones v. Governor of Fla., 950 F.3d 795 (11th Cir. 2020). Now, after a full trial on the merits, the plaintiffs’ evidence has grown stronger. This order holds that the State can condition voting on payment of fines and restitution that a person is able to pay but cannot condition voting on payment of amounts a person is unable to pay or on payment of taxes, even those labeled fees or costs. This order puts in place administrative procedures that comport with the Constitution and are less burdensome, on both the State and the citizens, than those the State is currently using to administer the unconstitutional pay-to-vote system.

 

Upgrades to the Restoration of Rights Project

We are pleased to announce the completion of a major project to upgrade our flagship resource, the Restoration of Rights Project (RRP).  The RRP is a free on-line compendium of legal research that describes and analyzes the laws and practices relating to criminal record relief in the United States.  The improvements we have made will make it easier for our readers to gain both a snapshot and more detailed understanding of how record relief laws and policies operate within each of the 50 states, D.C., 2 territories, and the federal system.  They will also facilitate comparisons of how different states address various types of relief, producing a national-level picture against which each state can measure its progress.

This major undertaking was a collaboration between CCRC staff and four students at Yale Law School: Jordan Dannenberg, Kallie Klein, Jackson Skeen, and Tor Tarantola.  We thank these students, as well as YLS Professor Kate Stith, for their excellent contributions to our mission of promoting public engagement on the issues raised by the collateral consequences of arrest or conviction.

The state-by-state profiles, summaries and 50-state comparison charts from the RRP are what we rely on in preparing periodic and year-end summary reports on new legislation, which we track and add to the RRP in real time throughout the year.  The research and analysis in the RRP also informs our commentary on everything from new court decisions and scholarship to politics and practice, as well as the amicus briefs we file from time to time in significant litigation.  It is the foundation of our work on model legislation.  The RRP provided the raw material for a national overview report of record relief laws and policies, Forgiving and Forgetting in American Justice, which was last revised in August 2018.  Because of this report’s value in identifying overall patterns and emerging trends, we are already at work bringing it up to date with the more than 200 new laws passed since it was last revised.

Through the upgrade project we reorganized and expanded the RRP in three major ways.

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Collected resources on record restrictions for small business relief

On this page, we have collected a variety of materials on the restrictions related to arrest or conviction imposed by the Small Business Administration (SBA) on small business owners seeking relief under the Paycheck Protection Program and Economic Injury Disaster Loan program.  Included are letters from legislators and major organizations, articles by us and by others, and official documents related to this issue.  We hope these resources will assist those working to ensure that much-needed relief is made fairly available to small business owners and their employees.  We continue to update this page with new resources (last updated May 27).

On April 21, Secretary Mnuchin seemingly closed the door on the SBA making any changes to its exclusionary policies at this time, but we encourage him to reconsider.  But there is no reason why the SBA cannot at any time rescind the new restrictions in its Interim Final Rule for the Paycheck Protection Program, as we advocate with 25 other organizations in our public comment on the SBA’s Interim Final Rule.  We also encourage Congress to curtail the SBA’s authority to unfairly deny relief to small businesses struggling to survive this crisis.

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New efforts to channel federal relief to small business owners with a record

After Congress authorized hundreds of billions of dollars in funds for small business relief during COVID-19, the Small Business Administration (SBA) imposed restrictions on applicants with an arrest or conviction history.  These barriers, neither required nor contemplated by Congress, impede access to the two major relief programs for small businesses, nonprofits, and independent contractors during the COVID-19 crisis.  The two programs are the newly created Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and the ramped-up Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) program.

Three developments within the past week signal major pushback against or the possible reversal of at least some of these burdensome restrictions, which unfairly deny relief to worthy applicants.

First, at least 65 organizations submitted five public comments in opposition to the SBA’s criminal history restrictions for PPP relief.  Our organization joined 25 other groups in submitting a comment asking the SBA to rescind or modify the regulation on legal and policy grounds, citing recent court decisions that suggest the SBA may lack authority to impose record-based disqualifications at all.

These comments are the most recent expression of what has become a wave of bipartisan opposition to the SBA’s exclusionary policies, and growing coverage of the issues in the press.  We have been collecting relevant documents on our small business relief resource page.

Second, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin signaled in a recent conversation with key Senators that he may be open to easing restrictions on PPP applicants with felony records from the last five years.

Third, the HEROES Act, passed by the House on Friday, includes provisions that would significantly constrain the SBA’s authority to deny applicants based on a record of arrest or conviction in both the PPP and EIDL programs.  If enacted into law, these provisions would mark a turning point in how federal law deals with discrimination based on criminal record.

We discuss these developments in detail after the jump.  Read more

Is SBA denying disaster relief based only on an arrest?

In response to COVID-19, Congress created the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and expanded the Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) program, appropriating hundreds of billions of dollars across these programs to assist small businesses affected by the pandemic and economic crisis.  As we have been pointing out in this space over the past five weeks, the Small Business Administration (SBA), which administers both programs, has imposed broad restrictions on access to relief based on arrest or conviction history, restrictions that were neither required nor contemplated by Congress.[1]

Until now, attention has been focused on small business owners unfairly denied PPP relief based on their record.  Members of Congress and major organizations have written in opposition to PPP regulations and policies that impose barriers based on a record, and dozens of media outlets have covered the issue.  But the EIDL disaster relief program has largely gone under the radar, in part because the SBA has not published guidance about how it is treating EIDL applicants with a record.

In a new development, documents posted anonymously on Reddit last week, and published by Law360 on May 3, purport to be internal SBA guidance for reviewing EIDL applications.  The documents instruct agency staff to deny relief to applicants if they have ever been arrested, unless the arrest was for a misdemeanor and occurred more than 10 years ago.  These leaked documents, also covered in detail by Entrepreneur this morning, would suggest that behind the scenes the SBA is imposing even greater record-related restrictions on COVID-19-related disaster relief than on PPP loans.

Upon review, we believe that this new information about the record-related standards being applied by the SBA to EIDL loans is likely correct.  We have heard from readers who were denied EIDL relief after SBA staff asked them questions over email about their arrest history, questions that correspond exactly to those in the leaked documents.  An SBA spokesperson, given an opportunity to correct the record if it needed correcting, declined to confirm or deny the information.

We have never see a government program in the United States with such broad and arbitrary restrictions based on criminal history.  The purported EIDL guidance is devoid of nuance: it instructs staff to deny relief based on arrest history regardless of offense and regardless of whether the arrest resulted in prosecution, much less conviction.  The look-back period is limitless for felony arrests and a full decade for misdemeanor arrests.  The guidance inevitably produces unwarranted disparities: a person with a decades-old felony arrest that was never charged, or whose arrest resulted in an acquittal, is treated more severely than someone with a more recent misdemeanor conviction.  Finally, the guidance cannot be squared with existing published SBA policies, as discussed below.

In normal times, a sweeping and secretive restriction on disaster relief would be problematic.  In this global public health and economic crisis, it is inexcusable.

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CCRC awarded operating grant by Arnold Ventures

Press Release:
Arnold Ventures Awards Grant to the Collateral Consequences Resource Center

April 30, 2020

Washington, D.C. — The Collateral Consequences Resource Center (CCRC) is pleased to announce the award of an operating grant of $200,000 from Arnold Ventures.  The grant will support our program of research and technical assistance on restoration of rights and record relief following arrest or conviction, enabling us to expand our efforts to track and assess legislative trends as states around the Nation, and continue working to improve opportunities for people with a criminal record.

“We are delighted to be able to support the Collateral Consequences Resource Center’s pioneering work in support of reintegrating people with a criminal record,” said Jeremy Travis, Executive Vice President of Criminal Justice for Arnold Ventures.  “The Restoration of Rights Project is unique in its national scope and comprehensive nature, and it has become an authoritative resource for advocates and practitioners alike during an extraordinarily fruitful period of legal reforms.”

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Mnuchin defends record restrictions for SBA stimulus loans

We have written much in recent days about how the SBA has imposed new restrictions on participation in the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) by small business owners with a record of arrest or conviction.  We were therefore surprised to hear Secretary Mnuchin at the White House press briefing yesterday assert that the new SBA rules are actually more favorable to this population than the old ones.  That is simply not true.

Prior to enactment of the CARES Act, the SBA’s rules for its 7(a) loan program—of which the PPP is the newest part—disqualified only people with open criminal cases.  People with past records were subject to an individual evaluation.  In launching the PPP, the SBA imposed entirely new mandatory disqualifications that were neither part of SBA’s preexisting regulations nor required by the CARES Act.  New PPP rules and policies prohibit loans to any small business owner who, in the past five years, had a felony conviction, plea, or was placed on probation, parole, or diversion, even without a conviction.

Yet at a press conference yesterday following Senate approval of additional PPP funds, Mnuchin claimed exactly the opposite.  Responding to a question about the President’s comment the day before that he would look into the issue of people with records being denied access to small business loans, the Secretary stated that he had “worked with the White House” to “specifically design” the PPP program to reflect criminal justice reform efforts led by Jared Kushner and others in the Trump Administration.  As a result, he said, the new five-year disqualification period is “significantly shorter than what had been done before . . . . There were a lot of people who wouldn’t have had access previously and we changed those regulations.”  (The clip is here, starting at 7:38; a transcript is below.)

The Secretary’s explanation is so wildly off the mark that it is hard to believe he was simply misinformed.  More likely, he was reporting on how the SBA’s 7(a) loan program has been administered in practice, unwittingly revealing an unwritten policy of categorical exclusion in spite of formal policies calling for individual review.  That peek at how a risk-averse bureaucracy actually operates out of the public eye would be no surprise to people who have experienced it.

In the run-up to the drafting of the new stimulus bill, several bipartisan coalitions and policy experts urged Congress and the SBA to ensure that  justice-involved people who have started small businesses—and their employees—can obtain stimulus funds.  But Mnuchin yesterday seemed to shut that door: “For now, we’re not going to do that.”

We strongly encourage the Secretary to take another look, and to do it quickly, before the new PPP funds are authorized and distributed.  As Marc Levin of the Texas Public Policy Foundation wrote in this space yesterday, “During this trying time, the SBA must reexamine these regulations to ensure that small businesses that made the most of one second chance don’t have it taken away through no fault of their own.”

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SBA has no excuse for excluding people with a record from stimulus relief

Some federal officials have claimed in recent days that the government is required to bar people with a criminal record from emergency loans under the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) either by the CARES Act or by preexisting SBA rules.  Neither assertion is true.

There is nothing in federal law, including the CARES Act, that requires the Small Business Administration (SBA) to disqualify small businesses from applying for PPP loans based on an owner’s past arrest or conviction history.  Prior to enactment of the CARES Act, the SBA’s rules disqualified only people with open criminal cases from the 7(a) loan program of which the PPP is the newest part.  Yet in launching the PPP, the SBA inexplicably decided to impose entirely new record-related restrictions on a population that is already severely disadvantaged: the new PPP rules and accompanying application forms prohibit loans to any small business owner convicted of a felony within the past five years, or placed on probation or parole during that time, even if all court-imposed penalties have been fully satisfied.  In fact, the SBA even disqualifies people whose felony charges never led to a conviction, but instead were dismissed after completion of pretrial diversion.

Our one-pager, “At a Glance: Barriers to the Paycheck Protection Program (‘PPP’) Based on Arrest or Conviction,” available in PDF and included below, explains the new barriers to relief under the PPP as well as preexisting barriers under the 7(a) program.

The SBA’s new policy, which comes at perhaps the worst possible time for struggling small businesses, cannot be squared with recent Congressional efforts to support people with past justice involvement in their efforts to reintegrate into the community, by enabling them to compete fairly for federal employment and contracts.  Eligibility requirements for federal relief should be relaxed in these circumstances, not made more restrictive as the SBA has done.  A coalition of conservative groups today urged in a letter to Senator McConnell that Congress take steps to roll back this counterproductive SBA policy, joining advocates who wrote last week directly to the federal executive officials most directly responsible for it.  We hope Congress will curb the SBA’s authority to discriminate against small business owners with a record in its new stimulus package.

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Bipartisan coalition calls on SBA to roll back record-related restrictions in COVID-19 small business loan programs

On April 17 a diverse bipartisan group of civil rights, advocacy, and business organizations, including CCRC, sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Mnuchin and SBA Administrator Carranza expressing concern over the restrictions imposed by the SBA on people with a record of arrest or conviction under two programs recently authorized by Congress in response to the COVID-19 crisis.  The letter points out that these unwarranted restrictions on loan programs intended to aid small businesses and non-profits will have a significant and detrimental impact in communities across the country, and a particularly harsh effect on minority business owners and employees who are disproportionately affected by the criminal legal system as a result of institutional discrimination.  It urges that federal relief be made equitably accessible to all who need it.

The letter describes how the SBA’s program restrictions based on record are

  • unnecessary and confusing
  • inconsistent with Congress’ intent in enacting the CARES Act
  • overbroad and unfair
  • racially discriminatory

In conclusion, the letter urges the SBA to take the following steps:

  • At a minimum, bring the record restrictions for PPP and EIDL programs in line with those that applied to Section 7(a) and 7(b) loans under regulations adopted prior to enactment of the CARES Act.
  • Relax existing rules and policies that restrict access to PPP or EIDL financial assistance for people with a record in the urgent circumstances presented by the pandemic, in line with the purposes of the CARES Act.
  • Ensure that the application forms for SBA financial assistance accurately reflect the eligibility requirements and are written in a clear manner.

An Appendix to the letter describes how the new rules and policies governing the Payroll Protection Program are more restrictive than those governing the 7(a) program generally, and how barriers based on arrest or conviction may also disqualify people with any sort of a record from loans under the EIDL program authorized under the SBA’s existing 7(b) disaster loan program.

The letter —available in PDF and reprinted below – was sent by the following organizations:

American Civil Liberties Union
Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights
Collateral Consequences Resource Center
Community Legal Services of Philadelphia
Drug Policy Alliance
FreedomWorks
Georgia Justice Project
Interfaith Action for Human Rights
Jewish Council for Public Affairs
Justice & Accountability Center of Louisiana
Justice Action Network
Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights
National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers
National Employment Law Project
Public Interest Law Center
Reproductive Justice Inside
Safer Foundation
Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs
Women Against Registry

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Prosecutors’ role in deciding how long people stay in prison

A timely new article from CCRC board member Nora V. Demleitner, law professor at Washington and Lee University, considers the central role of prosecutors in determining who goes to jail and prison and how long they stay there.  Demleitner reviews—as a “case study of prosecutorial authority”—prosecutors’ actions to reduce confined populations during the COVID-19 crisis.  While prosecutors’ key role in charging and sentencing at the front end of a criminal case is well-established, in ordinary times their influence in its later stages, including in prison release decisions, is not so obvious.  Professor Demleitner shows how the pandemic “highlights the tools prosecutors have at their disposal and how they can directly impact the size of the criminal justice system.”  This in turn leads her to consider how “prosecutorial thinking” focused on public safety as opposed to public health “increasingly influences other branches of government” even in the midst of a pandemic.

Professor Demleitner’s article, “State Prosecutors at the Center of Mass Imprisonment and Criminal Justice Reform,” will be published in the April 2020 issue of the Federal Sentencing Reporter.  The abstract is included below:

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