Federal courts are frequently asked to take into account the collateral consequences of conviction in determining what sentence to impose under the criteria in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a). It is generally permissible for them to do so, and in line with current proposals of national law reform organizations. At the same time, courts must guard against the risk of socioeconomic bias favoring more privileged defendants who have the most to lose in the civil sphere, and who are likely to enjoy more vigorous and effective advocacy around collateral consequences.
The following discussion first reviews a federal court’s general obligation to understand the collateral consequences that apply in a particular case, and to ensure that a defendant considering a guilty plea has been adequately advised about them. It then reviews post-Booker case law approving below-guideline sentences based on the severe collateral penalties applicable to a particular defendant, such as loss of employment, extraordinary family circumstances, sex offender registration, and even reputational harm (“the stigma of conviction”). Finally, it discusses cases in which courts of appeal have refused to approve deep sentencing discounts based on collateral consequences in circumstances suggesting a bias favoring middle-class defendants. Read more
What relief is available for people with a federal conviction who cannot find or keep a job? Part of the answer may soon be found in two cases from Brooklyn that raise the question whether a federal judge has the power to expunge a conviction whose validity is conceded. In the first case, U.S. v. Jane Doe (Jane Doe I), the Justice Department has appealed Judge John Gleeson’s May 21 expungement order to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. In the second case, also styled U.S. v. Jane Doe (Jane Doe II), Judge Gleeson asked the Department to brief the issue of his authority to expunge. He also asked the government to advise whether he has authority to “enter a certificate of rehabilitation in lieu of expungement.” The government has now delivered its answer, and it is “No” to both questions.
The government’s brief is fairly predictable. On the expungement issue, it argues that federal courts have no “ancillary jurisdiction” to expunge the record of a lawful conviction, relying on the Supreme Court decision in Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Ins. Co., 511 U.S. 375 (1994). As to the court’s authority to issue a certificate of rehabilitation, the government appears to assume that Judge Gleeson was referring to one of the certificates provided for under New York law, and relies on cases holding that a federal court cannot grant relief under a state law. One clue that this was not what Judge Gleeson had in mind might have been that neither of the New York certificates is called that (though they are considered evidence of rehabilitation), and that the only mention of a certificate of rehabilitation in federal law (Rule of Evidence 609(e)) is generic. Another clue is that no federal court that we know of has ever attempted to grant state relief to a federal offender (with the exception of a few assimilative crimes cases), indicating that the law on this issue is too clear to tempt even even the most creative jurist.
The petitioner’s brief is now due on October 5. The expert’s brief is likely to be due a day or two afterwards. No date has yet been set for oral argument.
The REDEEM Act, introduced in the US Senate in March by Senators Corey Booker (D–NJ) and Rand Paul (R–KY), seeks to expand employment opportunities for those with federal criminal records by giving federal courts sealing authority. Because courts have generally held they do not have inherent authority to seal records — at least where an arrest or conviction is valid — the Act would open an entirely new avenue of relief from many of the collateral consequences that result from a federal arrest or conviction. While in the past similar bills have not made it out of committee, the attention that criminal justice reform is currently receiving on the national political stage and the REDEEM Act’s bipartisan support could give the Act a fighting chance.
The Act, as introduced, is not without its flaws. Chief among them are its vague definition of what crimes are eligible for relief, the broad discretion courts would have to deny relief for eligible offenses, the significant exceptions to the confidentiality of sealed records, and the uncertain effect of sealing on collateral consequences. The good news is that the Act’s defects are not structural and can be easily remedied through the legislative process.
This post contains a nuts and bolts overview of the Act. In subsequent posts, we will take a closer look at ways the Act could be improved. Since the procedures and eligibility criteria applicable to adult and juvenile offenses differ in significant ways, we look at each in turn. Read more
In what appears to be an unprecedented action (at least if it stands), a federal judge has expunged the concededly valid conviction of a woman he sentenced 13 years before, whose difficulties in finding and keeping employment evidently moved him to take extraordinary measures. In Doe v. United States, Judge John Gleeson (EDNY) commented on the “excessive and counterproductive” employment consequences of old convictions:
Doe’s criminal record has prevented her from working, paying taxes, and caring for her family, and it poses a constant threat to her ability to remain a law-abiding member of society. It has forced her to rely on public assistance when she has the desire and the ability to work. Nearly two decades have passed since her minor, nonviolent offense. There is no justification for continuing to impose this disability on her. I sentenced her to five years of probation supervision, not to a lifetime of unemployment.