New research report: Four Years of Second Chance Reforms, 2013-2016

Introduction

4 year report coverSince 2013, almost every state has taken at least some steps to chip away at the negative effects of a criminal record on an individual’s ability to earn a living, access housing, education and public benefits, and otherwise fully participate in civil society.  It has not been an easy task, in part because of the volume and complexity of state and federal laws imposing collateral consequences.  To encourage employers and other decision-makers to give convicted individuals a fair chance, some states have enacted or modified judicial restoration mechanisms like expungement, sealing, and certificates of relief.  Others have extended nondiscrimination laws, limited criminal record inquiries, and facilitated front-end opportunities to avoid conviction.

In partnership with the NACDL Restoration of Rights Project, the CCRC maintains a comprehensive and current state-by-state guide to mechanisms for restoration of rights and status after conviction.  As a part of keeping that resource up to date, we have inventoried measures enacted and policies adopted by states in the past four years to mitigate or avoid the disabling effects of a criminal record, and present it here as a snapshot of an encouraging national trend.

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Manslaughter plea vacated to avoid licensing bar

A former University of Maryland student who pled guilty last April to throwing a punch that resulted in the death of a fellow student, has been allowed the benefit of a nonconviction disposition that will likely result in the expungement of his record. According to a report in the Washington Post,

Prince George’s County Judge Albert W. Northrop ordered the manslaughter conviction of Arasp Biparva in the 2014 killing of Jack Godfrey vacated. The judge also granted Biparva probation before judgment, which means the charges can later be expunged from public records.

The modified sentence will help Biparva, 25, as he finds a job in accounting, according to his attorney.

“Currently the conviction will interfere with the application process and prevent Mr. Biparva from obtaining the certifications he needs to advance his career,” his attorney, Barry Helfand, said in a request for the modified sentence.

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The many faces of expungement in America

An article from The Marshall Project published on September 17 got us thinking about the elusive term “expungement” and what it really means, both functionally and philosophically.  In Five Things You Didn’t Know About Clearing Your Record: A primer on the complicated road to expungement, Christie Thompson describes an unusual class action lawsuit recently filed by a public-spirited lawyer in a Tennessee county court seeking “to have the case files destroyed for hundreds of thousands of arrests and charges that never resulted in a conviction.”  She proceeds to point out some of the pros and cons of expungement relief, including that expunged records may still be available from private background screening companies or the internet.

But the problems with expungement laws are deeper than the article suggests. Quite apart from theoretical objections to relief based on pretense, the fact is that expungement laws have functional flaws even where public records are concerned.  For example, the Tennessee expungement law described in the Marshall Project article has no effect on records in the possession of law enforcement or prosecutors, or on appellate court records and opinions.  See Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-32-101(b)(1).  Moreover, it authorizes release of expunged arrest histories of a defendant or potential witness in a criminal proceeding to an attorney of record in the proceeding upon request. See § 40-32-101(c)(3).

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Michigan takes baby steps on criminal justice reform

Michigan spends one in five tax dollars on corrections so the state continues to explore strategies to safely reduce these costs.  In its most recent session, the legislature fishconsidered bold criminal justice reforms, but strenuous last minute objections from the Attorney General succeeded in halting much of the reform agenda. In the end, only a few reforms were implemented and most of them were passed in watered-down form.

The new laws include (1) the establishment of a Criminal Justice Policy Commission; (2) narrow expansion of set-aside eligibility to victims of human trafficking; and (3) authorization for Certificates of Employability for prisoners who complete certain in-prison training programs.  A more ambitious (though still narrow) expansion of the set-aside law is currently on the Governor’s desk for signature.  These “baby steps” leave lots of room for improvement, but constitute a blueprint for future reform efforts.

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Clean slate remedies help overcome collateral consequences

Eliza Hersh, director of the Clean Slate Clinic at the East Bay Community Law Center and one of CCRC’s contributing authors, has co-authored a most persuasive op ed in the LA Times, which we are pleased to reprint here in full.  

Should a shoplifting conviction be an indelible 1016829040562382727EwjStKwcscarlet letter? Not in California

What exactly is the appropriate punishment for someone who commits a low-level, nonviolent crime? Should a conviction for minor drug possession, shoplifting or writing a bad check result in a lifetime of stigma and denied opportunities, or do people with criminal records deserve a second chance?

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‘Tis the season for . . . . some presidential forgiveness

IMG_0291It’s that time of year again.  Odds are that sometime in the next two weeks President Obama will issue some pardons and commute some prison sentences.  I have never quite reconciled myself to the unfortunate and ahistorical  association of pardoning with the silly turkey ceremony (the Obama girls were right to roll their eyes) and Christmas gift-giving, the result of decades of presidential neglect and sometime Justice Department sabotage of the power.  But now that the season for forgiveness is upon us, I can’t wait to see what’s underneath the tree.

It was my fondest hope during the 2008 campaign that this president would want to revive the practice of pardoning, like Jerry Brown in California and Pat Quinn in Illinois, and restore a degree of regularity and accountability to the federal pardon process.  But so far President Obama has issued only 52 full pardons, making him the least generous full-term president in our Nation’s history.  And so far there is no indication that he intends to reinvigorate the federal pardon process, as Justice Anthony Kennedy urged in an iconic speech to the American Bar Association more than a decade ago, and as scholars and practitioners have regularly urged in less exalted settings ever since.  Nor has his Administration proposed any alternative procedure by which individuals with federal convictions can avoid or mitigate collateral consequences, like the set-aside authority in the Youth Corrections Act that was repealed in 1984.

But there is some reason for optimism even this late in the game.  President Obama’s evident willingness to use his constitutional power to reduce long drug sentences will hopefully have a spillover effect on the other half of the clemency caseload, the applications for full pardon from people who have long since served their sentences and gone on to live productive and law-abiding lives.  There are more than 800 applications for pardon pending in the Justice Department, many from people convicted decades ago whose lives of service have been exemplary.  They deserve something more than a gambler’s chance at forgiveness.

California’s Proposition 47 and collateral consequences: Part II (reentry and restoration of rights)

Prop 47 and restoration of rights 

California’s recently enacted Proposition 47 fundamentally alters the landscape for a handful of lower-level felony offenses in California. As discussed by Jeffery Aaron in a previous post, Prop 47 reclassifies eight offenses as misdemeanors, including simple drug possession offenses and theft of less than $950. Anyone with a qualifying conviction, who also does not have a disqualifying prior, can now petition under Prop 47 to have a felony reclassifiedimages as a misdemeanor. The most significant and immediate relief will be for people who are incarcerated for qualifying low-level felonies and who are now eligible for resentencing and release. Public defender offices around the state are busy filing those petitions.

But, Prop 47 also allows two other populations to petition for reclassification of their qualifying felonies to misdemeanors: People who are under supervision but not incarcerated (on probation, parole, or post-release community supervision), and people whose sentences were completed long ago. This aspect of the new law presents good opportunities for tens of thousands of Californians, and not insignificant implementation challenges.

Simply by reclassifying certain offenses from felonies to misdemeanors, Prop 47 can undo some of the most serious collateral consequences.  It’s clear from our experience providing reentry legal services to thousands of clients over the years that people with felony, as opposed to misdemeanor, convictions face increased barriers to employment, housing, and full and meaningful community reintegration and citizenship. For example, people with a felony conviction, even a decades-old low-level offense, can never serve on a jury in California. For many people, Prop 47 will reverse this lifetime disenfranchisement and move them one step closer to full civic engagement.

But unfortunately, many of the statuary and extra-legal barriers to successful reentry that block people convicted of felonies also apply to people with convictions for misdemeanors and criminal infractions. Consequently, Prop 47 relief alone is not a cure-all for collateral consequences, and for most people it’s not even the most important petition they can file to overcome the statutory disabilities they face.  The following section describes how Prop 47 relief interacts with other California relief mechanisms. Read more

California’s Proposition 47 and collateral consequences: Part I (sentencing consequences)

2000px-Flag_of_California.svgIn the general election on November 4, 2014, California voters approved Proposition 47 with almost 60% of the vote.  The Proposition will impact a wide range of sentences in California courts, and in the federal courts as well.  A number of crimes that could be, and often were, charged in California as felonies, such as commercial burglary, forgery, grand theft, and certain drug crimes, will now be charged as misdemeanors, so that their effect on a person’s criminal history will be substantially diminished.  A whole range of state felony drug offenses that could result in enhanced sentences in federal drug cases, even life imprisonment, or career offender status under the United States Sentencing Guidelines, have overnight become relatively harmless misdemeanors.

Significantly, Proposition 47 applies not only to persons who are currently “serving a sentence,” but also to those who have already fully served their sentences.  This means that thousands of people with California felony convictions can under certain circumstances petition to have their case recalled, the crime re-designated a misdemeanor, and be resentenced.  Once reduced to misdemeanors, qualifying crimes can be set aside under California Penal Code § 1203.4 (felony or misdemeanor cases sentenced to probation) or 1203.4a (misdemeanor cases sentenced to prison).  These provisions allow a defendant to withdraw his plea of guilty, enter a not guilty plea, and have the judge dismiss the case.  The record can then be expunged.

The importance of this retroactive effect of the new law cannot be over-estimated.  While Proposition 47 gained popular support as a way of reducing California’s prison population, its broadest and most significant long-term effect may be to reduce the impact of collateral consequences on people in the community.  For criminal defense lawyers, Proposition 47 offers a significant way to reduce a client’s exposure in subsequent prosecutions.

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