New York certificates of relief fall short in practice

New York’s venerable certificate of relief scheme, which aims to mitigate the adverse collateral effects of criminal conviction, has served as a blueprint for certificate laws recently adopted in many other states.  But are New York’s certificates actually effective at restoring rights and status? That is a question addressed in two new scholarly articles, both of which find that New York’s certificates are frequently inaccessible to their intended beneficiaries and misunderstood both by the officials tasked with issuing them and the employers and licensing boards that should be giving them effect.

Governor Cuomo recently directed reforms in the process for obtaining certificates in response to a report concluding that it has “historically been burdensome and slow.”  These articles should be useful in that effort.

Both articles use interviews and anecdotal evidence to shed light on how certificate schemes operate in practice, providing insight into how government officials (including judges and probation officers), employers and convicted individuals interact with the laws (or fail to) in the real world. The increasing popularity of such well-intentioned laws represents an encouraging shift in legislative attitudes about second chances; but, as the articles make clear, they are only as good as their real-world application, which is more limited and less effective than many suppose.

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New federal screening requirements for child care workers

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Child care workers in every state are subject to rigorous criminal background checks that may result in mandatory bars to employment. Until now, each state has been generally free to define its own standards regarding screening for criminal history. That is about to change.

By September of next year, states receiving funds under the federal Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) Act of 2014 (which appropriates over $ 2.5 billion each year to fund state child care and child welfare programs) must adopt minimum federally-defined screening standards for child care workers or risk loss of funding. The revised statutory standards subject current and prospective child care workers to a multi-level criminal background check and disqualify from employment anyone convicted of crimes against children, specified violent crimes, and drug crimes within the past 5 years.  States may opt to waive the disqualification for drug crimes on a case-by-case basis, but they are also free to adopt conviction-based disqualifications that are more restrictive than the law requires.

If the new CCDBG standards were not bad enough, the Department of Health and Human Services has issued proposed rules that would make them worse.  On Monday, the CCRC joined a coalition of organizations led by the National Employment Law Project in calling on HHS to rethink proposed rules that would implement the new screening requirements. A formal comment filed by the coalition details the ways in which the proposed rules fail to adequately address the disparate impact that the requirements could have on women, African Americans, and Latinos, and takes issue with requirements in the rules that are more exclusionary than the Act requires. Read more

50-state guide to expungement and sealing laws

The 50-state chart of judicial relief mechanisms from the NACDL Restoration of Rights Resource, which is also posted on this site, is a comprehensive survey of all authorities for judicial relief in the states and federal system. We wanted to bring it to our readers’ attention in light of the new federal interest in helping individuals with a criminal record overcome barriers to employment and licensing through clearing their records.

The National Clean Slate Clearinghouse, recently announced as part of President Obama’s reentry initiative, will “provide technical assistance to local legal aid programs, public defender offices, and reentry service providers to build capacity for legal services needed to help with record-cleaning, expungement, and related civil legal services.” This joint project of the Labor and Justice Departments will doubtless make it a first priority to survey the laws providing judicial and other relief in different states, to determine what sort of assistance lawyers will need to neutralize the adverse employment consequences of conviction, though the courts or otherwise.  We hope these resources will prove useful in that effort.

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Medicare Employment Exclusions and Criminal Records: Good and Bad News

Yvelisse Pelotte, a staff attorney at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, has drafted a survey and analysis of the barriers to employment in Medicare-funded programs and facilities for people with a criminal record, which is posted below.  While some of these exclusions are short-term and others can be waived by the Secretary of HHS, the statute gives HHS a great deal of latitude in extending exclusions for a lengthy period of time.

The applicable federal statute also contains a very broad definition of disqualifying conviction, specifically extending to expunged convictions and guilty pleas not resulting in conviction.  This means that federal law effectively puts off limits a very large segment of health care jobs, at least temporarily, for people with criminal records the state no longer regards as serious, if it ever did.

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Employment bars in long-term health care facilities declared unconstitutional

A few days ago we received the following communique from Sharon Dietrich of Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, announcing a major litigation victory that will be welcome news across the country.  On December 30 a unanimous 7-judge appeals court struck down the provisions of the Pennsylvania Older Americans Protective Services Act barring employment of people with criminal records in long-term health care facilities such as nursing homes and home health care agencies.  The provisions declared unconstitutional on due process grounds law include lifetime employment bans for offenses as minor as misdemeanor theft, which Sharon notes “prevented many Pennsylvanians with criminal records from working in that entire burgeoning field.”  The decision in Peake v. Commonwealth is here, and NPR’s report on the decision is here.

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Another federal expungement case from Brooklyn – is this the beginning of a trend?

On October 8, a former chief judge of the Eastern District of New York held that he was “constrained by controlling precedent” to deny the expungement petition of a woman who feared that her 23-year-old fraud conviction would prevent her from obtaining a nurse’s license.  See Stephenson v. United States, No. 10-MC-712.  Judge Raymond Dearie declined to find the “extreme circumstances” warranting expungement under Second Circuit precedent, noting that the petitioner before him was fully employed and that her aspiration to become a nurse was realistic, in light of the protection afforded her by New York’s nondiscrimination laws.  He proposed that his own willingness to certify her rehabilitation could help satisfy the “good moral character” standard for a nursing license. (Could this be the sort of “certificate of rehabilitation” contemplated by Judge John Gleeson in his second Jane Doe expungement case?  If so, it would seem to require no specific statutory authority for him to issue it to an individual he sentenced, no matter how long ago.)

Judge Dearie contrasted the case before him with the one in which Judge Gleeson ordered expungement in May, where the petitioner’s criminal record was having “a dramatic adverse impact on her ability to work,” citing Jane Doe I at *5.   The government has appealed Judge Gleeson’s expungement order.

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After prison, a lifetime of discrimination

The problem of mass incarceration was highlighted by the Pope’s visit last week to a Philadelphia jail, and by an HBO Special that aired earlier this week on the President’s visit last summer to a federal prison.  But the public has not yet had an occasion to focus on the broader and deeper problem of mass conviction that has consigned an entire generation of African American men to second class citizenship, and their communities to continued poverty and alienation.  The mere fact of a criminal record has placed a Mark of Cain on millions of Americans who never spent a day behind bars.

In this morning’s New York Times columnist David Brooks points out that the growth in state prison systems is driven by the sheer number of people prosecuted rather than sentence length, and he faults prosecutors for charging twice as many arrestees as in the past. But if it is true, as Brooks argues, that most people sent to prison nowadays spend about the same amount of time there as they did thirty years ago, the true crisis in our criminal justice system is represented by the lifetime of social marginalization and discrimination that follows them upon their release.

In New York, Governor Cuomo has taken important steps toward dealing with the problem of over-prosecution that looms large behind that of over-incarceration. It is time for elected leaders in other states to take similar steps, and time for President Obama to address the problem of collateral consequences for those with a federal conviction.  For example, in his conversations with federal inmates aired on HBO he spoke admiringly of ban-the-box programs.  It would be fitting if he implemented such a policy in the employment and contracting for which his Administration is responsible.  He might also consider pardoning deserving individuals,or supporting alternative relief mechanisms through the courts.  Hopefully in his final year he will turn his attention in that direction.

New York governor adopts progressive collateral consequences agenda

Governor Cuomo has accepted all 12 recommendations made by his Council on Community Re-entry and Reintegration. The Council was created in July 2014 and tasked with “identifying barriers formerly incarcerated people face and making recommendations for change.”

Governor Cuomo’s 12 executive actions include:  adoption of anti-discrimination guidance for public housing; adoption of uniform guidelines for evaluating candidates for occupational licensing, and a presumption in favor of granting a license to a qualified applicant; revision of 10 licensing and employment regulations that imposed stricter standards than required by statute;  adoption of a “fair hiring” policy for state employment that will delay a background check until well into the hiring process; and streamlining the process for obtaining certificates of relief from disabilities and certificates of good conduct.

Council Chair Rossana Rosado said, “We accomplished our goals this year but our work is far from over. As we look to address many more of the systemic barriers encountered in re-entry, we will not lose sight of New York’s role as a leader in combating the devastating impact and stigma of second class citizenship that so many of our fellow New Yorkers face, especially men of color.”

The Council will continue to build on this successful first year by promoting a range of educational opportunities to improve chances of employment, addressing barriers to health care, seeking to reduce the potential for extortion from public exposure of criminal records and continuing to seek solutions to housing people with criminal convictions consistent with fairness and public safety.

White House criticizes occupational licensing restrictions

Occupational licensing requirements pose more of a barrier to employment than ever before, and perhaps no group of the population has been more affected by these barriers than people with criminal histories.  About 25% of the country’s workforce is now employed in a field that requires a state occupational license, and many of these licenses take criminal history into account for eligibility or retention purposes.  As a result, a record number of people with criminal records — many of whom have devoted their lives to a particular occupation or profession — are finding it difficult or impossible to earn a living in their chosen field.

Now the White House is weighing in on the issue, saying that “Policymakers should refrain from categorically excluding individuals with criminal records, and instead should only exclude those individuals whose convictions are recent and relevant, and pose a legitimate threat to public safety.” The White House’s urging appears in a new report aimed at curtailing the “inconsistent, inefficient, and arbitrary” burdens that current occupational licensing systems can place on workers, employers, and consumers.” Read more

President urged to make federal hiring fairer — but is the “ask” enough to get the right result?

A coalition of national advocacy organizations has again urged President Obama to implement a robust federal hiring policy to give people with a criminal record a fair chance to compete for federal agency and contractor jobs.[1]  In an open letter dated July 20, the coalition called upon the President to issue an executive order requiring employers to conduct a criminal records check only after a conditional hiring offer has been made, and to adhere to current EEOC guidance on considering the results of a records check.

The administration’s recent rhetoric indicates that it may be receptive to the coalition’s proposed reforms. On July 14, the President explicitly endorsed so-called “ban-the-box” policies in his speech on criminal justice reform at the NAACP annual convention:

Let’s follow the growing number of our states, and cities, and private companies who’ve decided to ban the box on job applications so that former prisoners who have done their time and are now trying to get straight with society have a decent shot in a job interview.

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