Author Archives: CCRC Staff

Justice Department will enforce limits on landlord background checks

Earlier this year the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) issued new guidance asserting that housing policies that exclude people with criminal records may violate the non-discrimination provisions of the federal Fair Housing Act (FHA) if they fail to consider the nature, severity, and recency of criminal conduct and if they are not narrowly tailored to protect residents or property.  The Justice Department has taken the first step toward judicial enforcement of this guidance.

On October 18 the Department’s Civil Rights Division filed a Statement of Interest in Fortune Society v. Sandcastle Towers Housing Development, a federal civil rights suit brought in the Eastern District of New York against a Brooklyn provider of low-income housing, claiming that it has a blanket policy of refusing to rent to individuals convicted of any non-traffic crime.  The Statement urges the court to decide the case based on the legal framework set forth in the HUD guidance, which employs a three-step analysis to determine whether criminal history-based housing exclusion policies amount to illegal racial discrimination prohibited by the FHA.

Though the Statement does not address the factual dispute at issue in the case, it adopts HUD’s position that blanket bans based on criminal history are likely to violate the law in failing to require an individualized assessment of applicants, because African-American applicants are more likely to have criminal histories than their white counterparts.

When the HUD guidance was issued, we predicted that it would effectively end the use of criminal background checks to automatically exclude potential renters, and greatly expand housing opportunities for all people with criminal histories, regardless of their race.  The Justice Department’s strong endorsement of the guidance is a hopeful step in that direction.  

We reprint the Department’s press release below:

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Sex offender residency restrictions in the courts: is the tide turning?

The Marshall Project has published an important new article by Maurice Chammah on legal challenges to restrictions on where registered sex offenders can work, live, and visit. See “Making the Case Against Banishing Sex Offenders: Legislators won’t touch the subject, but courts are proving more sympathetic.”  Chammah writes that activists, finding lawmakers unreceptive to any measure perceived to benefit sex offenders, “have taken the route favored by other politically unpopular groups and turned to the legal system, where they are more likely to encounter judges insulated from electoral concerns.”

 Their legal claims vary, but in numerous cases, reformers have argued that these restrictions associated with registration add up to a sort of second sentence, and that they are defined in a vague way that makes them difficult to abide by. In some cases, the plaintiffs have argued that individual towns have enacted restrictions above and beyond what states allow them to impose.

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Federal pardon filings skyrocket, but pardon grants still down

New clemency statistics just posted on the Pardon Attorney’s website show that almost 1000 petitions for full pardon were filed in FY 2016, and that more than 1900 pardon petitions are presently pending.   We have become accustomed to seeing huge numbers of commutation filings, but the large number of pardon filings is much more surprising in light of President Obama’s meager pardon grant rate to date.  The 998 petitions filed in the 12-month period just concluded are almost twice the number filed in any single year since the Roosevelt Administration, including in the analogous period in the Bush 43 presidency. We reported in August that there were 1378 pardon petitions pending in June – which means that 550 new petitions must have been filed in less than 4 months.  That’s as many pardon petitions as have been filed in any full year in the past 75 years.

In August we reported on President Obama’s stated intention to grant a large number of full pardons before the end of his term, in addition to sentence commutations: “I would argue that by the time I leave office, the number of pardons that we grant will be roughly in line with what other presidents have done.”  But to match even George W. Bush’s 189 pardon grants, President Obama will have to grant more than 120 pardons in the next three months.

White House Counsel Neil Eggleston stated yesterday that the number of commutation grants since 2014 “make clear that the President and his administration have succeeded in efforts to reinvigorate the clemency process.”  But without action on the pardon side of the clemency docket it is too early to claim more than partial success.

Sex offender passport law survives challenge

anchor_service_passportA federal judge in San Francisco has dismissed a constitutional challenge to the recently enacted International Megan’s Law, which requires specially-marked passports for registered sex offenders whose offenses involved child victims, and authorizes notification to foreign governments when they travel.  The so-called “Scarlet Letter” law is specifically aimed at stopping child sex trafficking and sex tourism, and this purpose was evidently enough to justify it even though it has a far broader effect.

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HHS finalizes rules on child care worker screening

In February we posted about regulations proposed by the federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to implement criminal history screening requirements for child care workers under recent changes to the Child Care and Development Block Grant Act of 2014.  The CCRC joined a coalition of organizations led by the National Employment Law Project (NELP) in calling upon HHS to reconsider the proposed regulations. In a formal comment submitted to HHS, the coalition argued that the regulations contained screening standards that were more exclusionary than the Act requires, and that they would have a disparate impact on women, African Americans, and Latinos.

HHS has now issued the final version of those regulations.  Although the final rules are far from perfect, they do address a number of the concerns raised by the coalition.  For example, they omit language that encouraged states to require self-disclosure of criminal history, provide greater protection from inaccurate criminal record reporting, and urge states adhere to the standards laid out in the EEOC guidance by providing individualized assessments for disqualifying offenses that are added by the states but not required by the federal law.

Unfortunately, HHS chose not to back down on one of the most troubling provisions of the proposed regulations: criminal history screening of anyone age 18 or older residing in a license-exempt home that provides child care services.  Screening of those individuals is not required by the Act itself.  As the coalition’s comments explained, the requirement will almost certainly have a disproportionately adverse impact on providers of color and their families:

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Major new federal awards support second chance advocacy

Earlier this week the U.S. Departments of Justice and Labor made two major awards to the Council of State Governments (CSG) to support the development of resources on collateral consequences and second chance programs.  The awards aim to build capacity within the advocacy community to assist those seeking restoration of rights and status nationwide.

The first award is a $4.6 million contract awarded by the Labor Department for the development of the National Clean Slate Clearinghouse, a federal initiative first announced by President Obama last November.  The Clearinghouse is intended to “build capacity for legal services needed to help with record-cleaning, expungement, and related civil legal services.”

The second award is a $5 million grant from the Bureau of Justice Assistance to support the ongoing work of the National Reentry Resource Center (NRRC), a project developed by CSG in 2011 with federal funding earmarked in the Second Chance Act of 2007.  One exciting aspect of that award is that it will bring the National Inventory of the Collateral Consequences of Conviction (NICCC) into the NRRC fold.

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Indiana courts interpret new expungement law

On September 15, 2016, the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed a lower court’s denial of expungement to a woman convicted 13 years before of forgery and drug-dealing, holding that the court abused its discretion in denying relief where the case fully met the statutory standards. The decision provides a window into how one of the Nation’s most expansive new expungement laws is being interpreted and enforced by the courts of the state. Judging by this decision, the approach to restoration of rights in this otherwise-conservative state remains encouraging.

Here is Olivia Covington’s article from the Indiana Lawyer reporting on the decision, with a link to its full text.

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Can the pardon power be revived through procedural reforms?

Mark Osler has posted a new piece arguing for an overhaul of the federal pardon process so that it more closely resembles efficient and productive state clemency systems. He argues that flaws in the process for administering the power, rather than a failure of executive will, have prevented President Obama from carrying out his ambitious clemency agenda directed atlong-sentenced drug offenders.  Streamlining the process will enable presidents to use the power more generously and effectively.

This seems to us to an oversimplified solution to the theoretical and practical problems with what President Obama has been trying to do. Moreover, at least in the absence of constitutional amendment, any structural changes in the federal pardon process would have to be reaffirmed by each new president, and would likely be opposed by the Justice Department and Congress.

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Misdemeanants win challenge to federal firearms law

The Third Circuit has held that the federal bar to gun possession by convicted individuals cannot constitutionally be applied to two misdemeanants convicted years ago who were not sentenced to prison.  In a fractured opinion, the Third Circuit sitting en banc ruled that the two challengers never lost their Second Amendment rights, and that the government offered no persuasive justification for depriving them of the right to bear arms.  Five concurring judges thought the ruling too narrow, and would have limited this collateral consequence to individuals posing a public safety risk.  Seven judges would not allow any “as applied” Second Amendment challenges to the federal bar to gun possession by convicted individuals.

We plan to post analyses of the opinion in coming days.  In the meantime, here is Gene Volokh’s analysis from the Washington Post:

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Michigan sex offender registration amendments held unconstitutional

A federal appeals court has concluded that Michigan’s amendments to its Sex Offender Registration Act (SORA) “impose[] punishment” and thus may not constitutionally be applied retroactively.  See Does v. SnyderNo. 15-1536 (6th Cir. Aug. 25, 2016).  Here is the concluding analysis from the Sixth Circuit’s unanimous panel decision reaching this result:

So, is SORA’s actual effect punitive?  Many states confronting similar laws have said “yes.”  See, e.g., Doe v. State, 111 A.3d 1077, 1100 (N.H. 2015); State v. Letalien, 985 A.2d 4, 26 (Me. 2009); Starkey v. Oklahoma Dep’t of Corr., 305 P.3d 1004 (Okla. 2013); Commonwealth v. Baker, 295 S.W.3d 437 (Ky. 2009); Doe v. State, 189 P.3d 999, 1017 (Alaska 2008).  And we agree.  In reaching this conclusion, we are mindful that [consistent with the Supreme Court’s holding in Smith v. Doe, 538 U.S. 84, 92 (2003)] states are free to pass retroactive sex-offender registry laws and that those challenging an ostensibly non-punitive civil law must show by the “clearest proof” that the statute in fact inflicts punishment.  But difficult is not the same as impossible. Nor should Smith be understood as writing a blank check to states to do whatever they please in this arena.

A regulatory regime that severely restricts where people can live, work, and “loiter,” that categorizes them into tiers ostensibly corresponding to present dangerousness without any individualized assessment thereof, and that requires time-consuming and cumbersome in-person reporting, all supported by — at best — scant evidence that such restrictions serve the professed purpose of keeping Michigan communities safe, is something altogether different from and more troubling than Alaska’s first-generation registry law.  SORA brands registrants as moral lepers solely on the basis of a prior conviction.  It consigns them to years, if not a lifetime, of existence on the margins, not only of society, but often, as the record in this case makes painfully evident, from their own families, with whom, due to school zone restrictions, they may not even live.  It directly regulates where registrants may go in their daily lives and compels them to interrupt those lives with great frequency in order to appear in person before law enforcement to report even minor changes to their information.

We conclude that Michigan’s SORA imposes punishment.  And while many (certainly not all) sex offenses involve abominable, almost unspeakable, conduct that deserves severe legal penalties, punishment may never be retroactively imposed or increased.  Indeed, the fact that sex offenders are so widely feared and disdained by the general public implicates the core countermajoritarian principle embodied in the Ex Post Facto clause.  As the founders rightly perceived, as dangerous as it may be not to punish someone, it is far more dangerous to permit the government under guise of civil regulation to punish people without prior notice.  Such lawmaking has “been, in all ages, [a] favorite and most formidable instrument[] of tyranny.” The Federalist No. 84, supraat 444 (Alexander Hamilton).  It is, as Justice Chase argued, incompatible with both the words of the Constitution and the underlying first principles of “our free republican governments.” Calder, 3 U.S. at 388–89;accord The Federalist No. 44, supra at 232 (James Madison) (“[E]x post facto laws . . . are contrary to the first principles of the social compact, and to every principle of sound legislation.”). The retroactive application of SORA’s 2006 and 2011 amendments to Plaintiffs is unconstitutional, and it must therefore cease.

 

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