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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Illinois health care licenses elude those with records

2000px-Seal_of_Illinois.svgThe Illinois legislature has been generally progressive in enacting measures to help people with a criminal record avoid being stigmatized for life.  In 2003, as a state senator, President Obama sponsored one of the earliest of these measures, authorizing courts to grant certificates relieving collateral consequences. In 2011, however, Illinois took several steps backwards when it enacted legislation automatically barring some criminal record holders from ever working in a variety of licensed health care fields.  The law has since become the subject of litigation and further legislation that leaves many would-be medical licensees to face an uncertain future.

What follows is a description of the law’s enactment, subsequent court challenges, and potential legislative fixes.

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New York Times editors question efficacy of expungement laws

In an editorial titled “Job Hunting With a Criminal Record,” the editors of the New York Times tackle the problem of employment discrimination against the estimated 70 million Americans who “carry the burden of a criminal record.”  They question the efficacy of expungement and other popular “forgetting” strategies for dealing with employer aversion to risk, preferring the “longer term” approach of “a change in attitudes about people with criminal records.”

The editorial points out that expungement laws typically apply only to “relatively minor transgressions,” require lengthy waiting periods, and include “significant exceptions” (e.g., they don’t apply to jobs and licenses requiring a background check, a large and growing segment of the labor market). In addition, “trying to keep anything secret in the 21st century is no sure thing.”  Finally, “record-sealing laws do not and cannot address the underlying problem of overcriminalization.”

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Forgiving v. forgetting: A new redemption tool

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A tale of two (or three) pardoners from Illinois

64133-004-53FEB8CC Illinois Governor Pat Quinn spent his first and last days in office considering pardons.  On April 10, 2009, referring to the hundreds of cases left untouched by his impeached predecessor Rod Blagojevich, he declared that “Justice delayed is justice denied,” and promised that “My administration is fully-committed to erasing this shameful log jam of cases in a methodical manner and with all deliberate speed.”

Quinn was as good as his word.  His interest in erasing the pardon backlog never flagged, even during his two reelection campaigns.  By the time he left office earlier this week, he had acted on more than 5,000 pardon applications and granted full pardons to 1,789 people, more than any other Illinois governor in history.  In his final week he also pardoned a man found innocent by the courts, making him eligible for compensation from the state, and commuted a number of prison sentences, freeing two men whose guilt had been drawn into question.

Far from being critical, the press was full of praise for his courage and compassion.  It was a fitting way to ring the curtain down on a tenure that saw the pardon power restored to a respectable and fully operational role in the Illinois criminal justice system.

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How risky is pardoning? Not as risky as committing uninformed journalism

An AP story about the perils of pardoning, picked up by newspapers and media outlets across the country, manages to convey three pieces of misinformation in its very first sentence.  Riffing off a recent high profile pardon application, it begins like this:  “Mark Wahlberg’s plea for a pardon has focused fresh attention on excusing criminal acts – something governors rarely do because it’s so politically risky.”

But pardons do not “excuse” crimes, they forgive them; governors have been pardoning more and more generously in recent years; and pardoning, like any other government program involving personal participation by a high profile elected official, is generally not risky if done in a responsible manner with good staff support and without apology.

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Despite pardoning hundreds, out-going Illinois governor may leave significant clemency backlog

When disgraced Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich was removed from office in 2009, he left behind more than the ugly controversy that would eventually lead to a 14-year federal prison sentence: he also left behind a 7-year backlog of over 2,500 clemency recommendations from the state’s Prisoner Review Board (“PRB”).   Blago’s successor Pat Quinn declared in April 2009 his intention of “erasing the shameful logjam of cases in a methodical matter and with all deliberate speed,” stating that “Justice delayed is justice denied.”  Since then, Governor Quinn has disposed of a total of 3,358 clemency petitions, granting more than a third of them.  Of the 1,239 persons pardoned, most have also had their records expunged.

However, despite his admirable efforts to restore pat+quinn1regularity to Illinois pardoning, it appears that Quinn may leave his successor almost as large a backlog as he himself inherited.  This is because, during  his six years in office, the PRB has forwarded over 3,000 additional recommendations to the governor’s desk, most of which have not been decided.  Unless Quinn somehow finds a way to dispose of this still-large backlog of cases between now and January, Blagojevich’s irresponsible neglect of his pardoning responsibilities will have created a kink in the administration of the pardon power in Illinois that may not be worked out for years to come.

If long waits have become the new normal for pardon applicants in Illinois, those seeking relief from collateral consequences would do well to consider the alternatives available under state law.  For example, Illinois courts are authorized to grant Certificates of Relief from Disabilities, which avoid numerous licensing restrictions and shield employers from negligent hiring liability; and, Certificates of Good Conduct, which relieve mandatory bars to employment and other opportunities and certify the recipient’s rehabilitation.  Courts are also authorized to seal and expunge records in certain cases.

You can read about the latest round of Governor Quinn’s pardons in this Chicago Tribune article.  More information about relief and restoration of rights in Illinois can be found in the NACDL Restoration of Rights resource here.

UPDATE:  In his final days in office, Governor Quinn pardoned more than 300 people, and denied about 1000 petitions. He left about 2000 petitions for his successor to act on.  Let us hope he has a similarly progressive view of pardoning.