Excessive filing fees frustrate new expungement schemes

How much is a clean slate worth?  That’s the question many people with criminal records are asking in Kentucky, Louisiana, and Tennessee, where the cost of filing for expungement is (or will soon be) between $450 and $550.  To put that into perspective:  In Kentucky, the $500 fee required to expunge an eligible felony conviction under a new law that takes effect in July will equal nearly half of the monthly wages of a full-time worker earning the state’s $7.25 minimum wage.  The relative cost will be even higher for the many people who have difficulty securing steady full-time employment because of their criminal record.  The high filing fee puts relief effectively out of reach for most of those it was intended to benefit,  even if they elect to file without retaining a lawyer.

There is a major disconnect between these exorbitant fees and the policy rationale that has led many states to create or expand expungement opportunities in recent years.  Expungement improves the employment prospects of people with criminal records, allowing them to achieve a degree of economic stability that in turn discourages further criminal behavior.  People held back from economic stability by their criminal records are the people that are likely to benefit most from expungement, and the social advantages of expungement are most keenly experienced among this population.  But these are the very people least likely to be able to afford to pay high application fees.

According to an article by Maura Ewing published by the Marshall Project earlier this week that takes a closer look at the issue, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Tennessee are outliers among states that allow for expungement in charging such high fees:

Many states charge $150 or less to apply for expungement … and some states offer a waiver if the applicant is too poor to pay.

In the 17 states that allow for expungement of low-level felonies, “the application fee is generally in line with standard court fees.”

So why are the application fees in those three states so high, and where does that money go?  Ewing found that while Louisiana’s fees were considered necessary to cover the costs of an inefficient and underfunded justice system, the fees in Kentucky and Tennessee were driven solely by the prospect of generating general revenue.  From the article:

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New Yorker comments on collateral consequences

Lincoln Caplan writes in this week’s New Yorker about Judge Frederic Block’s decision last week to reduce a woman’s prison sentence because of the life-altering collateral penalties she faced on account of her drug conviction.  After describing the facts of the case and the judge’s reasoning, Caplan concludes with the following comments about what Jeremy Travis has called “invisible ingredients in the legislative menu of criminal sanctions”:

The main conclusion of the judge’s opinion is that, while the law allowed him to take account of the civil penalties when he sentenced her, there was nothing he could do to protect her from them. He joined criminal-justice experts in encouraging Congress and state legislatures “to determine whether the plethora of post-sentence punishments imposed upon felons is truly warranted,” and suggested that they do the country “more harm than good.” He didn’t say so, but for many legislatures that would mean carefully assessing these punishments for the first time. As the criminal-justice scholar Jeremy Travis wrote, in 2002, legislatures have often adopted collateral consequences in unaccountable ways: “as riders to other, major pieces of legislation,” which are “given scant attention.” They are, Travis said, “invisible ingredients in the legislative menu of criminal sanctions.”

The judge made clear why the severity of collateral consequences—authorizing discrimination in education, employment, housing, and many other basic elements of American life—means that anyone convicted of a felony is likely to face an arduous future. This predicament has been called modern civil death, social exclusion, and internal exile. Whatever it is called, its vast array of penalties kicks in automatically with a conviction, defying the supposedly bedrock principle of American law that the punishment must fit the crime.

One of the most significant things about Mr. Caplan’s comments is that they make clear he believes collateral consequences are “punishment,” not “regulation,” and should be treated as such.  Courts are beginning to regard them as such as well for purposes of applying constitutional principles.  See, for example, the three cases now pending in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, where the validity of the state’s new sex offender registration scheme is at stake. States are increasingly looking at lifetime registration as punishment under their own state constitutions.  So it should not be long before the U.S. Supreme Court is asked to reconsider its 2003 holdings that such collateral consequences are immune from constitutional challenge based on the Due Process and Ex Post Facto clauses.

“On Lawyering” on collateral consequences

The following post was originally published at On Lawyering, CCRC President Rich Cassidy’s blog on the law and culture of lawyering. 

Judge Rules That That the Collateral Consequences of Conviction Justify the Release of a Drug Offender

“Earth’s most impassable barriers – as Lincoln the lawyer knew, as Lincoln the writer knew – are often those formed not of walls and trenches, nor even of mountains and oceans, but of laws and words.”[1]

Senior United States District Judge Fredric Block, in an opinion issued on May 24, [2] ruled that the collateral consequences faced by a 20 year old woman convicted of smuggling 602 grams of cocaine into the United States from Jamaica, justified a one year term of probation, even though she faced a guideline sentence of 33-41 months of imprisonment.

Judge Block reviewed the history of collateral consequences, concluding that “[t]oday, the collateral consequences of a felony conviction form a new civil death[,]”[3] referring to the scholarly work of my colleagues, Gabriel Jack Chin and Margaret Love. He decried the racially disparate impact of these laws, citing Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow (2010). He noted the existence of collateral consequence reform efforts including an ABA Criminal Justice Standard [4]and the Uniform Collateral Consequence of Conviction Act.[5] He pointed out the sweeping breadth of collateral consequences, noting that according to the National Inventory of the Collateral Consequences of Conviction, nationwide there are some 50,000 federal and state statutes and regulations that impose collateral consequences and that some 70 to 100 million Americans are subject to them.[6]

Judge Block reviewed the state of the law, noting that while there is a split in the circuits, the law in the Second Circuit allows a sentencing judge to consider“the impact and significance of the collateral consequences facing a convicted felon as bearing upon a just punishment.”[7]

Finally, Judge Block put the idea into practice: he reviewed, in some detail, the collateral consequences the defendant faces, their likely impact on her life, and concluded:

[T]he collateral consequences Ms. Nesbeth will suffer, and is likely to suffer – principally her likely inability to pursue a teaching career and her goal of becoming a principal, Conn. Gen. Stat. §§ 10-145b, 145i – has compelled me to conclude that she has been sufficiently punished, and that jail is not necessary to render a punishment that is sufficient but not greater than necessary to meet the ends of sentencing.[8]

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Access to healthcare a lifesaver for halfway house residents

logo_dhhs_lrgOn April 29th the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced a shift in policy that will for the first time allow released prisoners residing in “halfway houses” to take advantage of the services made available through the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid Expansion.  The change will provide much-needed medical and rehabilitative services to countless former inmates that would not otherwise have access to essential healthcare resources.  It may seem like a minor change but as a practical matter it is likely to do more to encourage successful reentry than any other single policy decision in recent years.

Until now, halfway house residents have been excluded from coverage because of an interpretation of the Medicaid statute that considered halfway house residents to be “inmates of public institutions” – a category of persons that are statutorily ineligible for Medicaid coverage.  The new DHHS guidance removes those in halfway houses from that category so long as they have “freedom of movement and association while residing in the facility.”  It also clarifies that individuals on parole and probation are not “inmates” and are eligible for coverage.

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Collateral consequences inventory may move to NRRC

nicccThe National Inventory of Collateral Consequences (NICCC), a comprehensive interactive catalog of collateral consequences and relief mechanisms, will soon become a part of the federally funded National Reentry Resource Center (NRRC).  The NICCC, described by the Justice Department as an integral part of its Smart on Crime initiative, was developed by the American Bar Association between 2011 and 2014 under a grant from the National Institute of Justice (NIJ).  The NRRC, also closely tied to the Administration’s reentry strategy, was established in 2011 by the Council of State Governments and has been supported by grants from a number of federal agencies, including NIJ, and by private foundations.  Now the government has decided to consolidate the two projects under the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA).

According to a grant solicitation issued by the BJA earlier this month, bidders for a $5 million grant to administer the NRRC grant must “propose a plan to transfer” the NICCC and keep it up to date at an approximate annual cost of $100,000.  The solicitation does not make clear what if any conditions apply to the transfer of the NICCC, or what if any continuing role the ABA would have for its maintenance, and we must assume the government has determined that it should be permanently transferred to whatever organization wins the bid for the NRRC.  Bids are due by June 2. Read more

NYT says NO to “the other f-word,” and YES to Gov. McAuliffe

08sun1-master768The New York Times has two great Sunday editorials on issues relating to collateral consequences.  One deals with the issue of labeling people with a criminal record, of special concern when headline writers seem unable to resist using what Bill Keller at the Marshall Project recently called “the other F-word.”  The editorial points out that ugly demeaning labels like “convict” and “felon” are “an unfair life sentence.”  Let us hope the message reaches newsrooms across the country, and that journalists (especially headline writers) will find another way of describing people with a criminal record.

The Times also has another very fine editorial on Virginia Governor McAuliffe’s restoration of the vote to more than 200,000 individuals, pointing out that his authority under the Virginia Constitution is indisputable.

A very good day for the editorial staff of the Gray Lady, whose editorial page is setting an example of enlightened thinking about criminal law issues – notably including the collateral consequences of conviction.

“Vermont sheriff risks his career by hiring a sex offender”

Vermonter Rich Cassidy, who chairs the CCRC Board, drew our attention to this extraordinary story of courage and compassion and plain good sense in the Green Mountain State.  Published last week in the Vermont weekly Seven Days, it tells the story of LaMoille County Sheriff Roger Marcoux Jr.’s decision to take a chance on Timothy Szad, described as “a gifted carpenter and diligent worker” who is also “Lamoille County’s most notorious criminal.”

Here are a few introductory paragraphs to a story well worth reading in full.

In 2000, Szad stalked and sexually assaulted a 13-year-old boy in the southern Vermont woods. He went to jail for his crime and served the maximum sentence. But his punishment didn’t end when he got out, in 2013. His release was widely publicized, which generated something of a vigilante reaction. So he embarked on a cross-country journey in search of a new home. When no place would have him, he wound up back in Vermont — this time, in sleepy Hyde Park.

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Justice Department (or part of it) will no longer use the “f-word”

The Washington Post has published an op ed by a top Justice Department official responsible for grants and contracts announcing that her agency* will no longer use labels like “felon” and “offender” to describe people who have a criminal record.  Assistant Attorney General Karol Mason, who heads the Office of Justice Programs, said that she had recently issued “an agency-wide policy directing our employees to consider how the language we use affects reentry success.”

I have come to believe that we have a responsibility to reduce not only the physical but also the psychological barriers to reintegration.  The labels we affix to those who have served time can drain their sense of self-worth and perpetuate a cycle of crime, the very thing reentry programs are designed to prevent.

This is terrific news, and comes on the heels of a thoughtful editorial by Bill Keller of The Marshall Project proposing that journalists ought to make an effort to avoid disparaging language:

[W]ords that not long ago were used without qualms may come to be regarded as demeaning: “colored,” “illegals.”  “Felon,” which makes the person synonymous with the crime, is such a word. Likewise “convict.”  I’m less troubled by words that describe a temporary status without the suggestion of irredeemable wickedness — “inmate” and “prisoner” and “ex-offender” — but ask me again a year from now.

Ms. Mason’s piece explained further:

This new policy statement replaces unnecessarily disparaging labels with terms like “person who committed a crime” and “individual who was incarcerated,” decoupling past actions from the person being described and anticipating the contributions we expect them to make when they return.  We will be using the new terminology in speeches, solicitations, website content, and social media posts, and I am hopeful that other agencies and organizations will consider doing the same.

Interestingly, the Post editor either didn’t read Ms. Mason’s piece or didn’t agree with it, since the paragraph introducing it used the word “convict” twice.  I guess it just takes time.

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*A note at the bottom of the op ed explains that Ms. Mason’s new policy applies only to OJP and not to the Justice Department as a whole.

“Virginians with a felony conviction can now vote, but getting a job is no easier”

Lincoln Caplan, formerly of the editorial staff of The New York Times and now on the faculty at Yale Law School, has written a thoughtful piece about collateral consequences for the New Yorker.  It points out why Governor McAuliffe’s order restoring the vote to Virginians with a criminal record doesn’t help them deal with the myriad of legal restrictions that deny them opportunities, or with what he calls “a relentless form of social stigma.”  He concludes that relief measures like expungement, which are based on concealing the fact of conviction, may be less effective for felony-level crimes than more transparent measures like pardon or certificates of rehabilitation.  He concludes that “Forgiving, when someone has earned it, gives an individual a fresh start and, just as important, it helps restore the idea of rehabilitation in American justice.”

A featured piece by a well-regarded journalist in such a sophisticated venue may do a lot to bring the problem of collateral consequences to the attention of people in a position to do something about them.  We reprint portions of the article below. Read more

Will Prez Obama make federal contractors ban the box? [Update: Not now.]

ban box b-roll_frame_21820

Updated April 29:

According to comments late this week from senior White House adviser Valerie Jarrett, the President remains inclined to defer to Congress when it comes to making federal contractors ban the box:

Asked whether there was consideration of whether to take action to require federal contractors to “ban the box,” Jarrett said, “The president has supported federal legislation that would ban the box for federal contractors. He thinks that’s the best approach.”

The legislation in question appears to have stalled, as noted by its sponsor Rep. Elijah Cummings.  (In a tweet, Jarrett pointed advocates to a 2013 directive of the Office of Federal Contract Compliance reminding contractors of their obligation to comply with the EEOC guidance on criminal records.)

On the other hand, on Friday the administration made good on its November promise to require federal agencies to ban the box, when OPM announced a proposed rule requiring federal agencies to postpone inquiry into an applicant’s criminal record until after a conditional offer of employment has been made.

Also, marking the end of National Reentry Week, the President formally established the Federal Interagency Reentry Council, a Cabinet-level working group dedicated to “the rehabilitation and reintegration of individuals returning to their communities from prisons and jails.”  Originally convened by the Attorney General in 2011, the President’s action ensures that the Council will continue past the end of his Administration.

Original post from April 26:

As the White House inaugural National Reentry Week begins, advocacy organizations and Members of Congress are again calling on President Obama to use his executive authority to “ban the box” in federal contractor hiring, just as he announced he would do in federal agency hiring last November.

The call comes on the heels of a number of steps the Obama Administration has taken to improve the employment prospects of those with criminal histories, including the creation of the Fair Chance Business Pledge earlier this month.  Last fall, the President announced a number of additional reentry initiatives, including establishment of a Clean Slate Clearinghouse.  The President’s overall record on second-chance issues has been commendable, but he will have to move quickly to maximize his administration’s impact before the end of his term.

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