The Vera Institute has issued a first-rate assessment of the effect of the Rockefeller drug law reforms in New York City. See End of an Era? The Impact of Drug Law Reform in New York City. The report found that as a result of the reforms far more people were diverted out of the justice system and into treatment, thus avoiding conviction and the attendant collateral consequences. On the other hand, for those not diverted, the report found that the repeal of mandatory minimums led prosecutors to look for other ways to leverage plea bargains, leading to more felony convictions and more severe collateral consequences than under the old laws. Sentencing reformers in other jurisdictions should take note.
The Vera Institute has published a new report that claims states are “rethinking” collateral consequences through enactment of laws intended to mitigate their impact. The report (Relief in Sight? States Rethink the Collateral Consequences of Criminal Conviction, 2009-2014) includes an excellent introduction to the issues, helpfully categorizes different types of relief measures, and makes a number of useful recommendations for future reform.
However, the report seems unduly sanguine in suggesting that wholesale dismantling of the regime of collateral penalties is just around the corner, or that reforms of the past five years augur a sea change in public attitudes. Of greater practical concern, the report has methodological shortcomings that limit its usefulness as a research and advocacy tool.
In a recent national study of case processing in the nation’s misdemeanor courts, Wall Street Journal reporters Gary Fields and John Emschwiller document how “blindingly swift” justice is for the “millions of Americans charged each year with misdemeanor crimes”:
In Florida, misdemeanor courts routinely disposed of cases in three minutes or less, usually with a guilty plea, according to a 2011 National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers study. In Detroit, court statistics show, a district judge on an average day has over 100 misdemeanor cases on his or her docket–or one every four minutes. In Miami, public defenders often hardly have time to introduce themselves to their misdemeanor clients before the cases are over. . . . In a Houston courtroom one day recently, defendants–sometimes individually, sometimes in groups of up to nine . . . , pleaded guilty, received their sentences and got a “good luck” from the judge in less than 30 seconds.
It appears that very little has changed in the forty years since the Supreme Court in Argersinger v. Hamlin bemoaned the assembly line that characterized the processing of misdemeanor offenses at that time. The Court noted:
Wherever the visitor looks at the system, he finds great numbers of defendants being processed by harassed and overworked officials. Suddenly it becomes clear that, for most defendants in the criminal process, there is scant regard for them as individuals. They are numbers on dockets, faceless ones to be processed and sent on their way.” (emphasis added)
The Argersinger Court noted that uncounseled defendants were pleading guilty, often at their initial appearance before a judge, and that there were harmful consequences that flowed from convictions of even so-called minor crimes. To remedy the national crisis in misdemeanor courts that existed even in the 1970s, the Court held that the Gideon right to Read more
Earlier this week, the Center for American Progress published a new report on the effect of the proliferation of criminal records in a nation of mass incarceration and criminalization. The report (“One Strike and You’re Out: How We Can Eliminate Barriers to Economic Security and Mobility for People with Criminal Records”) explores the debilitating effect that a criminal record – including records for relatively minor offenses and for arrests that did not result in a conviction – can have on an individual’s access to housing, public assistance, education, family stability, and, in turn, their prospects for economic stability. The report’s authors are Rebecca Vallas of the Center for American Progress’s Poverty and Prosperity Program, and Sharon Dietrich of Community Legal Services of Philadelphia (and of our own CCRC Board).
The report makes the point that the proliferation of criminal records, and the ease with which they can be accessed, harms not only individuals but society as a whole. The collateral consequences of a criminal record result in employment losses of $65 billion a year in GDP according to one study cited. Another study estimates that the national poverty rate would have dropped by 20 percent between 1980 and 2004 if not for mass incarceration and the accompanying criminal record crisis. The report notes that the war on drugs and the “criminalization of poverty” has resulted in a disproportionately high incidence of justice system contact in communities of color. Criminal records are thus both a cause of poverty and a consequence of poverty.
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. …
This month the Juvenile Law Center released an impressive pair of reports evaluating national policy on public access to juvenile criminal records. The first report, Juvenile Records: A National Review of State Laws on Confidentiality, Sealing and Expungement, provides a national overview of state laws, and proposes standards to mitigate exposure to collateral consequences as a result of a juvenile record. The report also makes recommendations for policy-makers, courts, defense attorneys, and youth-serving agencies. Supplementing the national overview are fact sheets on the law in each state, including the availability and effect of expungement or sealing, and an overview of the process for obtaining such relief. (These fact sheets can be found by clicking on the relevant state on the map here).
A second complementary report, Failed Policies, Forfeited Futures: A Nationwide Scorecard on Juvenile Records, scores each state on the degree to which it meets the Center’s ideal standards for juvenile record protection. The Center based its evaluation of the states on its “core principles for record protection” including:
This New York Times editorial urges states to seal or expunge juvenile records “so that young offenders are not permanently impaired by their youthful transgressions.” It describes a new study from the Juvenile Law Center that concludes “only a few states have ironclad systems prohibiting employers and members of the public from gaining access to [juvenile] records.”
The first juvenile courts were established more than a century ago on the principle that children deserve special care under the law because they are vulnerable, because their transgressions tend to be nonviolent and because they can be expected, on the whole, to outgrow their youthful misbehavior.
These presumptions are borne out by data showing that 95 percent of young people enter the juvenile justice system for nonviolent crimes like theft or vandalism — behavior they typically leave behind when they move into adulthood. But because some juvenile court records remain open to the public when they should have been sealed or expunged, these young people can be denied jobs, housing and even admission to college.
We’ve just learned that the School of Government at the University of North Carolina has produced a detailed and well-organized online guide to obtaining relief from a North Carolina criminal conviction. You can view the guide here. The guide explains in one place the various mechanisms available in North Carolina for obtaining relief from collateral consequences, including expunctions, judicial certificates of relief, and other procedures.
The guide supplements the School’s Collateral Consequences Assessment Tool, C-CAT, an online tool enabling users to identify the potential consequences of a criminal conviction in North Carolina. C-CAT is user-friendly and has been kept up to date with new laws enacted since its launch two years ago.
The relief guide is organized by the type of relief being sought and includes tables breaking down the specific requirements for relief. It describes special relief provisions for sex offender registration and firearms dispossession, as well as for drug crimes and juvenile adjudications. Features of the online guide include keyword searching, live links to internal and external cross-references such as statutes and forms, cases and opinions, and periodic updates. The guide was prepared by John Rubin, Albert Coates Professor of Public Law and Government.
This guide is the most detailed and user-friendly one we have seen, and should be a model for other jurisdictions.
Washington Lawyers Committee releases report on collateral consequences in D.C., Maryland and Virginia
On October 22 the Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs released a report focusing on the problem of collateral consequences in the DC tri-jurisdiction region.
The report, a follow-up to an earlier WLC report on racial disparity in arrests in the District of Columbia, documents the disproportionate impact of collateral consequences on minorities, which makes them “very clearly a civil rights problem.” For example, “although African-Americans make up less than 48% of the city’s population, over 92% of those sentenced by the DC Superior Court in 2012 were African-Americans, whose overall rate of incarceration in DC is some 19 times the rate of whites.” It reports that nearly half of those in DC who have been incarcerated may be jobless with little prospect of finding consistent work, and that “this inability to find work is a major contributing cause of recidivism.” It illustrates the problem of collateral consequences with case studies of five area residents adversely affected by their records in finding employment and housing.
Among the report’s recommendations are that all three jurisdictions should limit the discretion of licensing boards to deny licenses based on criminal records, enact or strengthen ban-the-box laws limiting employers’ use of criminal records, and limit access by most employers to official arrest and conviction records. Respecting the effect of D.C.’s recently enacted ban-the-box law, it reports that D.C.’s Office of Human Resources found that “76% of post-law applicants for municipal jobs who had a criminal record were in fact suitable for government employment, but would likely have been disqualified from consideration for employment if the D.C. law were not in place.” In addition, all three area jurisdictions “should review and improve their existing mechanisms for seeking individualized relief from collateral consequences, through methods like expungement or sealing of records and restoration of rights.”