Sexting prosecutions derailed by concerns about collateral consequences

The District Attorney of Oneida County (WI) has decided not to file criminal charges against forty teenagers implicated in a widespread sexting scandal in the Rhinelander school district.  His decision was reportedly based on concerns raised by parents and others about the collateral consequences of a criminal record.  In a joint press release, school officials and the local sheriff noted that felony charges could have limited students’ future employment prospects:

Although Wisconsin law does consider incidents such as this as felony offenses, and it does not have disciplinary alternatives for such offense, criminal charges were not filed against the students involved, which could be detrimental to the future of the students and, in turn, could be harmful to our community as these students will not be allowed to enter certain occupations

Under Wisconsin law, anyone convicted of a felony, no matter how minor, is permanently barred from obtaining over 100 professional licenses, and subject to many other adverse effects that may last a lifetime.

Instead of charging the students criminally, the school district is bringing in a Wisconsin Department of Justice special agent to give presentations to the students and parents about the seriousness of taking inappropriate photographs and distributing them on social media. Ten of the forty students who sexted on school grounds got one-day suspensions, and students who behavior violated the school athletic code were suspended for certain events.

The editor wonders whether such a resolution would be likely in an urban school setting.

“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.

 

“Second Chances for Teen Offenders”

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.

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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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More states rely on judicial expungement to avoid collateral consequences

Oklahoma is the most recent state to expand its expungement laws to make more people eligible fOklahomauntitledor record-clearing at an earlier date.  While the specific changes adopted by the Oklahoma legislature are relatively modest, involving reduced waiting periods and fewer disqualifying priors, they are significant as part of a national trend toward enlarging this type of “forgetting” relief for people with minor criminal records.  Details of Oklahoma’s law are available here.

Other states that have enacted new expungement laws or broadened existing ones in the past two years include Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Indiana, Minnesota, and Tennessee.

Alabama’s new expungement law is the first record-closing law in that state and applies only to non-conviction records.  Arkansas and Minnesota broadened or consolidated existing expungement schemes that were already quite extensive.  The Indiana expungement scheme is entirely new and particularly comprehensive and progressive. (An analysis of the new law by its primary sponsor in the Indiana legislature will be posted in this space very soon.)  The effect of this type of “forgetting” relief varies widely from state to state, from complete destruction of records in states like Pennsylvania and Connecticut to more limited relief in Kansas and Indiana, where expunged records remain accessible to some employers as well as law enforcement.

The other type of individualized judicial relief from collateral consequences that is growing in popularity relies not on limiting public access to a person’s criminal record, but instead on Read more

North Carolina offers detailed on-line guide to relief from a criminal conviction

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 clouds-over-smoky-mountain-national-park-nc130launch 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.

Civil rights lawsuit filed against rental complex for excluding people with a criminal record

The Fortune Society has charged a Queens landlord with civil rights violations for refusing to rent to people with a criminal record. From the New York Times report on the lawsuit filed in federal district court on October 30:

The lawsuit was brought against the owners and manager of the Sand Castle, a rental complex in Far Rockaway, Queens, with more than 900 apartments. The suit is one of the latest efforts in a nationwide push to make it easier to integrate people emerging from prisons back into their communities.

Concern over legal restrictions that hinder former prisoners’ efforts to find jobs and homes, long voiced by advocates of criminal justice reform, has taken on a broader urgency in recent years. Faced with stark fiscal pressures and rising criticism, many state governments have been rethinking practices that led to record levels of incarceration. Nationwide, about 700,000 people a year are currently being released from prison

Bars against former offenders in housing are said to be common around the country, although some landlords apply them only partially — barring sex offenders or arsonists, for example, or allowing those convicted of misdemeanors but not felons. The ability of landlords to easily look up criminal backgrounds on the Internet is believed to have increased the practice.

The Fortune Society’s press release on the suit can be found here.

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