In the wake of the Brock Turner case, a new controversy was ignited in Massachusetts last month when 18-year-old David Becker, a white college-bound athlete, received two years’ probation after pleading guilty to indecent assault of an unconscious woman at a house party. As in the Turner case, many are outraged by a penalty they regard as too lenient and the result of white privilege. However, any perceived injustice in the Becker case may be less about an abuse of judicial discretion than about the limited ability of judges to mitigate collateral consequences.
Critics of the decision may be even more concerned to learn that David Becker was not actually convicted of a crime. Instead, District Court Judge Thomas Estes accepted Becker’s guilty plea and ordered a “continuance without a finding” (known as a CWOF) for two years while Becker serves a term of probation. If Becker completes the conditions of probation successfully, the charges against him will be dismissed and the record will be eligible for sealing.
The fact that Becker was not convicted is significant because it allows him to avoid both registering as a sex offender and the numerous collateral consequences that would come with having a criminal record.
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. Snyder, No. 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.
Capitalizing on the growing interest in the employment discrimination faced by people with a criminal record, Cornell University’s ILR School will host a program next month featuring Judge John Gleeson on “The Role of Courts in Managing Collateral Consequences.” Details of the program, which will take place in Manhattan on September 29, are here. Last year, Judge Gleeson expunged the conviction of a woman he had sentenced 13 years before, and later issued a “federal certificate of rehabilitation” to one of the woman’s codefendants. While the 2nd Circuit recently reversed Judge Gleeson’s expungement order, the government did not appeal his certificate order.
Participating with Judge Gleeson on the Cornell program are New York Supreme Court Justice Matthew D’Emic, who recently presided over a mass certificate ceremony in Brooklyn; and Michael Pope, Director of Legal Services for Youth Represent, who last month won a significant victory for a woman whose shop-lifting conviction had resulted in her rejection as a school bus attendant in New York City. Ted Potrikus, President and CEO of the Retail Council of New York State, and Margaret Love, Executive Director of the CCRC, will also participate. Registration is now open for the program, which carries CLE credit. Read more
In June we covered two recent studies that concluded ban-the-box policies tend to decrease minority hiring because some employers use race as a proxy for criminal history. In other words, in the absence of information about applicants’ criminal history, some employers assume that minority applicants have a record and exclude them on this assumption. The result is that ban-the-box policies increase opportunities for whites with a criminal record but decrease them overall for minorities, and thus encourage unlawful discrimination. Some observers, including one of the study authors, advocated for the repeal of ban-the-box policies based on those conclusions. Last week, the National Employment Law Project (NELP) published a critique of those studies, pointing out that any adverse effect on racial minorities is ultimately the product of unlawful discrimination barred by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, not banning the box. In NELP’s view, the solution is “a robust reform agenda that creates jobs for people with records and dismantles racism in the hiring process, not [rolling] back the clock on ban-the-box.” We republish the summary and introduction of NELP’s critique below.
Two recent studies claim that “ban the box” policies enacted around the country detrimentally affect the employment of young men of color who do not have a conviction record. One of the authors has boldly argued that the policy should be abandoned outright because it “does more harm than good.” It’s the wrong conclusion. The nation cannot afford to turn back the clock on a decade of reform that has created significant job opportunities for people with records. These studies require exacting scrutiny to ensure that they are not irresponsibly seized upon at a critical time when the nation is being challenged to confront its painful legacy of structural discrimination and criminalization of people of color.
Our review of the studies leads us to these top-line conclusions: (1) The core problem raised by the studies is not ban-the-box but entrenched racism in the hiring process, which manifests as racial profiling of African Americans as “criminals.” (2) Ban-the-box is working, both by increasing employment opportunities for people with records and by changing employer attitudes toward hiring people with records. (3) When closely scrutinized, the new studies do not support the conclusion that ban-the-box policies are responsible for the depressed hiring of African Americans. (4) The studies highlight the need for a more robust policy response to both boost job opportunities for people with records and tackle race discrimination in the hiring process—not a repeal of ban-the-box laws.
At least on paper, New York City has the strongest legal protections in the Nation for people with a criminal record, and for employers and others who are willing to give them a chance. The State’s vaunted certificates of relief remove mandatory legal disabilities and certify rehabilitation, and are available to any and all defendants. Governor Cuomo has shown his interest in restoration of rights by adopting a broad reform agenda, and the City’s ban-the-box law is among the broadest in the Nation. Both State and City have broad human rights laws intended to protect people with a criminal record from unwarranted discrimination. But with all this web of beneficent laws and rules and policies, some City agencies apparently still have not gotten the word.
In a decision handed down on July 12, a New York judge chastised the City’s Department of Education for refusing to license a woman as a school bus attendant based solely on a 2010 conviction for petty larceny, an action for which he found no basis in fact or law. Read more
The following piece by Maurice Emsellem of the National Employment Law Project was originally published on the Huffington Post.
Uber’s ruthless expansion strategy has put state and local legislators in the middle of the debate over regulation of the on-demand, ride-hailing workforce. Laws requiring background checks for drivers, which can restrict access to Uber’s core asset, are now a central theme of the regulatory battle, focusing specifically on the use of state and federal criminal history databases that require fingerprinting of ride-hailing drivers.
Indeed, Uber and Lyft recently chose to abandon the Austin, Texas market rather than comply with local laws requiring taxi drivers to undergo fingerprint-based background checks (56 percent of Austin voters rejected an initiative to exempt on-demand companies from the city’s law). And in New Jersey and Chicago, where similar measures are now being actively debated, Uber retained former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to lobby against the bills by challenging the accuracy and fairness of fingerprint-based FBI background checks (which is an issue that NELP has championed as an advocate of bi-partisan federal reform legislation).
To help inform the debate, it’s important to first clarify that “fingerprinting” is a shorthand term referring to background checks that require an individual’s fingerprint (usually captured by means of “livescan” technology) to access either a state criminal history repository or the FBI database, which collects data from the state and local systems. In contrast to name-based checks conducted by commercial background check companies, fingerprint-based checks are less vulnerable to misidentification. In addition, private employers typically cannot access the databases requiring fingerprinting of the workers unless authorized by a federal, state, or local occupational licensing law, like the ride-hailing laws regulating taxi drivers. Instead, with varying degrees of accuracy, the commercial background check companies collect criminal history data from the local courts, the states, and “aggregators” of criminal history data.
Washington State courts are now authorized to grant certain individuals a Certificate of Restoration of Opportunity (CROP), which prohibits many state licensing entities from disqualifying the holder solely based on his or her criminal history. A CROP also protects employers and housing providers from liability for negligent hiring and renting. The new certificate authority was created by HB 1533, which was signed by Governor Jay Inslee on March 31 and took effect last month.
In light of the trend toward giving courts responsibility for restoring legal rights and certifying rehabilitation, we took a closer look at who is eligible for this newest judicial certificate and the benefits it confers. Read more
Have we been wrong in trying to fit the round peg of collateral consequences into the square hole of punishment? Sandra Mayson, a Fellow at the Quattrone Center at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, says yes. In an article published in the Notre Dame Law Review, Mayson challenges the view of some scholars that mandatory collateral consequences should be considered part of the court-imposed sentence, and thus potentially limited by procedural due process and ex post facto principles. For starters, the Supreme Court has told us that dog won’t hunt.
But that doesn’t mean that collateral consequences should be immune from constitutional constraint. Mayson proposes instead to analyze collateral consequences as “preventive risk regulation” under principles developed in the administrative law context. Specifically, she argues that a severe collateral consequence (such as sex offender registration) may be justified only if it can be shown to serve a public safety purpose in a particular case.
Update: The National Employment Law Project has responded to these studies with a critique that we cover here.
Ban-the-box policies have become popular in recent years as a way of minimizing discrimination based on criminal history, and have been adopted by 24 states, the federal government, and a number private companies. But until recently there has been little hard data available about the general effect of those policies on employment opportunities. A number of recent studies have begun to fill that gap, and the results have been disturbing. The consensus seems to be that while banning the box does enhance the employment prospects of those with criminal records, it also encourages employers to fall back on more general racial stereotypes about criminal history without the “box” to confirm or deny it.
Most recently, a multi-year field study by Amanda Agan (Princeton University) and Sonja Starr (University of Michigan Law School) found that although banning the box made it more likely that individuals with criminal records would receive call-backs from prospective employers, it dramatically increased the gap in call-backs between black and white applicants. Employer responses to over 15,000 fictitious job applications sent to New York and New Jersey employers after ban-the-box policies took effect showed that black applicants received 45% fewer callbacks than white applicants, up from a 7% differential before the new policy took effect: