New report describes public health consequences of incarceration

A new report from the Vera Institute, On Life Support: Public Health in the Age of Mass Incarceration, highlights the “contagious” health effects of incarceration on the already unstable communities to which most of the 700,000 inmates released from prison each year will return.  The report argues that high rates of incarceration among residents in these communities are “one of the major contributors to poor health in communities,” and that this has “further contributed to diminished educational opportunities, fractured family structures, stagnated economic mobility, limited housing options, and restricted access to essential social entitlements.”  In “a political landscape ripe for reform” of these cascading collateral consequences of conviction, the report finds significant promise in the Affordable Care Act:

The passage of the ACA in 2010 was a watershed moment in U.S. history. State and local governments are increasingly realizing the opportunities created by the ACA to develop partnerships between health and justice systems that simultaneously abate health disparities and enhance public safety. A number of the legislation’s key provisions—the expansion of Medicaid, increased coverage and parity for mental health and substance use services, and incentives for creating innovative service delivery models for populations with complex health needs—provide new funding streams and tools for policymakers to strengthen existing programs and develop solutions to reduce mass incarceration.90 The ACA creates critical opportunities for states, local governments, and healthcare stakeholders to greatly expand the capacity of their community health systems to better meet the needs of underserved populations, curb the flow of medically-underserved populations into jails and prisons, pursue collaborative programming to plug service gaps between health and justice systems, and ensure that people are able to receive services in the community that are essential for health. …

“The president’s idle executive power: pardoning”

As the presidential pardon of everyone’s favorite Thanksgiving galliformes makes front-page news across the country (a tradition that the many human clemency petitioners who have spent years awaiting action must struggle to find the whimsy in), two law professors take the federal clemency system to task in a new Washington Post opinion piece.  In the piece, professors Rachel E. Barkow (NYU) and Mark Osler (University of St. Thomas) argue that the long and multi-tiered review process for federal clemency petitions could be significantly improved if the president would minimize the Justice Department’s involvement in the process while shifting responsibility to a bi-partisan review commission.  From the article:

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Labels and stereotypes in the President’s immigration speech

obama-immigration-speechThe President’s decision to take unilateral executive action to insulate certain undocumented immigrants from the immediate threat of deportation has provoked outrage in some quarters and profound relief in others.   The legal issues raised by this decision are important and debatable, some of its line-drawing is problematic, and its success stands or falls on the uncertain terrain of bureaucratic discretion.  No doubt its political implications are yet to be revealed.

But amid all the uncertainty, one thing is clear.  In his speech announcing the initiative the President said, repeatedly and definitively, that no one with a criminal record would benefit from his reprieve.   Thus, he emphasized that enforcement resources would remain focused on “actual threats to our security,” by which he meant “Felons, not families. Criminals, not children.”   Again, it is possible to benefit from the law if you can “pass a criminal background check” (whatever that means), but “[i]f you’re a criminal, you’ll be deported.”   Even people convicted of misdemeanors will not be spared under the new DHS enforcement priorities.

Entirely apart from the wisdom or fairness of the immigration policy choice involved in this broad blanket exclusion (and there are good reasons to be critical of it), it was disheartening to hear the President present it in such unfortunate language.  The ugly labels of “felon” and “criminal” do, after all, at least technically describe a status shared by 25% of adult Americans.  Labels like these serve only to demonize and exclude, and they are fundamentally at odds with our national policy of encouraging rehabilitation to reduce crime.  There were other ways the President could have justified continuing his policy of deporting based on criminal record than by using words that do more to stir up fear of “the other” than to describe relevant functional attributes.

The President’s words suggest that people who have been convicted of a crime are evermore to be regarded as “felons” and “criminals,” categorically threatening to our safety and security, and uniformly deserving to be segregated and sent away.  But he himself pardoned such a person less than two years ago, precisely to keep her from being deported. And he is surely aware of the bipartisan conversation now underway about the need to curb over-criminalization, one of the few matters on which Republicans and Democrats can agree.   It is tempting to take linguistic shortcuts when politically expedient, but it is a temptation he might have resisted without jeopardizing his larger objective.

It is time we stopped using negative stereotypes and labels to describe people who at some point in their past have committed a crime, in the immigration context or otherwise.  It is no longer acceptable to describe undocumented immigrants as “illegal aliens.”  Our language needs a similar makeover where past convictions are concerned.

Playing nice in criminal court: “Crashing the Misdemeanor System”

As the Supreme Court recently acknowledged in Lafler v. Cooper (2012), American criminal justice “is for the most part a system of pleas, not a system of trials.”  Nowhere is that statement truer than in the lower courts, where millions of misdemeanor arrests are resolved, or, to use the lingo of the criminal court, “disposed of,” without even a whiff of a trial.

In a provocative New York Times Op-Ed, “Go to Trial: Crash the Justice System,” Michelle Alexander raised the prospect of organizing people to refuse to plea bargain.  Professor Jenny Roberts takes a cue from Alexander and manages to be even more rebellious.  In Crashing the Misdemeanor System, 70 Wash. & Lee L. Rev. 1089 (2013), she urges much more specifically that defense attorneys focus their energy on taking down extant misdemeanor systems that are best characterized as guilty plea mills.

Roberts argues that “the most minor misdemeanor conviction has serious implications for so many people,” and bemoans the fact that nevertheless most misdemeanors are given short shrift by all institutional players — judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys alike.  Her article is a clarion call for defense attorneys to reimagine, refocus and reinvigorate their misdemeanor practice, especially in an era of massive arrests for minor crimes made popular by Broken Windows, or quality-of-life, policing.

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“The Evolution of a Prison Reformer”

4404748294_c6b5f2a596On November 10, The Crime Report posted a profile of CCRC Board member Glenn Martin and the organization he founded, Just Leadership USA.  Just Leadership is dedicated to cutting the US prison population in half by 2030 and to training formerly incarcerated individuals to become leaders in promoting criminal justice reform.  Martin himself spent six years in the New York prison system, and later served for more than a decade in key positions at The Fortune Society and Legal Action Center.

The profile describes Martin’s participation last October in an unprecedented meeting between Obama Administration officials and leaders of the community of formerly incarcerated individuals, organized by the Attorney General Office’s Interagency Reentry Council.  The meeting focused on sentencing reform, but it presented an unusual opportunity to challenge some stereotypes about who should be at the table when reform is discussed.

At its core, Martin said, Just Leadership challenges some people’s broad assumption that formerly incarcerated people “can’t read or write” or smartly weigh in on the socially and emotionally tangled issues of crime, courts and corrections.

For the most part, the individuals leading that discussion tend not to have been imprisoned. Although many of them play significant roles in the courts, corrections and policing, some harbor ideals and opinions that are not always grounded in fact, Martin argues.

“You don’t achieve a moral argument for reform if you do what [so-called] progressives have been doing for years, serving up the ‘perfect prisoner’ who is the first-time, non-violent drug offender . . . .  That person . . . actually doesn’t go to prison. I’ve never met him. That’s the person who went home from the courthouse. By the time [most] people end up in prison, they have multiple convictions.”

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Federal regulation of criminal background checking

FINGERPRINTTwenty years ago, criminal record background checks for employment were rare. Today, the easy accessibility of criminal records on the Internet, and the post-September 11th culture of heightened scrutiny, have contributed to a sharp increase in background checks of job candidates.  If you’re applying for jobs in most industries, expect employers to ask about a criminal record at some point in the hiring process—and expect many of them to run a background check on you.

It’s a harsh reality for an estimated one in four U.S. adults who have some type of criminal record.  Unfortunately, any involvement with the criminal justice system—even having minor or old offenses—could become a job obstacle for these 70 million Americans. Even if you’ve avoided a run-in with the law, you could still find yourself being unfairly screened out for a job due to an erroneous background check report. With thousands of private background check companies across the country that have varying levels of reliable information, inaccuracies in these reports are far too common.

Unknown to many job candidates, private background check companies and the employers relying on their reports are regulated by a federal consumer protection law called the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA).  Although more well-known in the credit report context, FCRA also applies to companies that produce criminal background check information, and gives job-seekers a number of protections.

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The Collateral Consequences Resource Center Goes Live!

The Collateral Consequences Resource Center website launches on Tuesday, November 18, 2014.  We hope it will fill a growing need for information and advice about the modern phenomenon of mass conviction and the second-class citizenship it perpetuates.

ccrc inkscapelogostackedThe legal system is only beginning to confront the fact that an increasing number of Americans have a criminal record, and the status of being a convicted person has broad legal effects. The importance of collateral consequences to the criminal justice system is illustrated by cases like Padilla v. Kentucky (2010), holding that defense counsel have a Sixth Amendment obligation to advise clients about the possibility of deportation. Civil lawyers too are mounting successful constitutional challenges to harsh consequences like lifetime sex offender registration, categorical employment disqualification, and permanent firearms dispossession, which linger long after the court-imposed sentence has been served.  Government officials have tended to regard collateral consequences primarily as a law enforcement problem involving the thousands leaving prison each year, but they are now considering how to deal with the lifetime of discrimination facing the millions who have long since left the justice system behind. Advocates are pointing out how counterproductive and unfair most mandatory collateral consequences are, and legislatures are paying attention. People with a record are organizing to promote change.

The time is right to launch the Collateral Consequences Resource Center, which will bring together in a single forum all of these diverse interests and issues. The Center’s goal is to foster public discussion and disseminate information about what has been called the “secret sentence.” Through its website the Center will provide news and commentary about developments in courts and legislatures, curate practice and advocacy resources, and provide information about how to obtain relief from collateral consequences in various jurisdictions. The Center aims to reach a broad audience of lawyers and other criminal justice practitioners, judges, scholars, researchers, policymakers, legislators, as well as those most directly affected by the consequences of conviction. It invites tips about relevant current developments, as well as proposals for blog posts on topics related to collateral consequences and criminal records: Contact Us.

 

Dismissed charges not always the best outcome?

Which is a better outcome for a defendant in a criminal case: a) dismissal of all charges; or b) finding of guilt with probation or fine? Although most defendants and their attorneys would without hesitation choose option a), the choice is not always clear cut for some young defendants in in at least one Midwestern state.

So why might a former client say that “I can’t get a job because the charges against me were dismissed“? Or ask “ Why didn’t my lawyer tell me to plead guilty?” How is there a potential advantage of a conviction compared to dismissal?

In Wisconsin, computerized court records make it easy for the public, including prospective employers, to see public records of court cases, including charges that have been dismissed. However, a statute (Wis. Stat. sec. 973.015) allows for certain records to be sealed, depending upon the defendant’s age and the classification of the crime. However, the statute does not allow for sealing records in cases that resulted in dismissal, so they remain accessible through computerized searches.

Therefore, if a defendant is greatly concerned about the potential effect of the record on future employment (or other effect on reputation), an expunged record may be preferable to a public record of a dismissed charge. The defense attorney should at least be aware of the options and explain them to the client, rather than assuming which option the client would prefer. This example also shows that it is critically important for defense lawyers to be aware of the relief that may be available to avoid or mitigate collateral consequences.

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Minnesota project examines how different life would be with a criminal record

weareallcriminals

WeAreAllCriminals.org

One in four people in the United States has a criminal record. It’s a record used by the vast majority of employers, legislators, landlords, and licensing boards to craft policies and determine the character of an individual.  In our electronic and data age, it typically does not disappear, regardless of how long it’s been or how far one’s come. The effect is an endless sentence, precluding countless opportunities to move on or move up in life.

But what about the other 75%?

We Are All Criminals is a documentary project that looks at the three in four people in the US who have the luxury of living without an official reminder of a past mistake.  Participants tell stories of crimes they got away with.  They are doctors and lawyers, social workers and students, retailers and retirees who consider how very different their lives could have been had they been caught; these confessions are juxtaposed with stories of people who were caught for similar offenses.

The stories are of youth, boredom, intoxication, and porta potties. They are humorous, humiliating, and humbling in turn. They are privately held memories without public stigma; they are criminal histories without criminal records.

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