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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Michigan sex offender registration amendments held unconstitutional

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. SnyderNo. 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.

 

President promises a more “open” pardon process, more pardon grants

1024px-Pascal_Dagnan-Bouveret_(1852-1929)_-_Les_Bretonnes_au_pardon_-_Lissabon_Museu_Calouste_Gulbenkian_21-10-2010_13-52-01During a Town Hall in South Carolina on March 6, President Obama spoke for the second time in recent weeks about his intention to use his pardon power more generously in the final two years of his term.

Responding to a criminal defense attorney who asked what she could do to “increase the number of federal pardons,” the President explained that he was taking a “new approach” to pardons after receiving surprisingly few favorable recommendations from the Justice Department during his first term.  He said he had asked the Attorney General to “open up” the pardon process, and to work with advocacy groups and public defenders to make people more aware of the availability of this relief:

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Moral panic over sex offenses results in cruel and self-defeating overpunishment

logo(4)National Lawyers Guild Review Editor-in-Chief Nathan Goetting has published a thought-provoking piece in the most recent issue of the Review, commenting on America’s “moral panic” over sexual offenses, which has “created self-defeating policies, unconstitutional laws, and cruel punishments.”   Among those punishments are a plethora of collateral consequences that stigmatize and shame without regard to actual risk.  We reprint the editorial here in its entirety, with permission.      

It should go without saying that human sexuality is rife with complexity and mystifying contradictions. It’s a puzzle palace from which all sorts of behaviors—routine, bizarre, and sometimes dangerous—can emanate. Yet our criminal laws and procedures regarding sex crimes respond to this swirling welter of incomprehensible impulses with stubborn and self-defeating simplicity. We choose to punish that which we fear to understand, as if learning what motivates the behavior is to show a little too much sympathy and solidarity with “perverts,” toward whom only contempt can be shown. As with suspected terrorists since 9/11, our mercilessness leaves no room for anything else, not even enlightened self-interest.

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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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Jerry Brown takes back a pardon . . . really?

CA.img42766495Jerry Brown reportedly regretted one of his 105 Christmas Eve pardons, after learning from an LA Times article that the recipient had recently been disciplined by federal financial regulators.  He therefore announced that he was rescinding his grant, claiming that the pardon was not yet final because the Secretary of State had not signed the document evidencing it.

This is not the first time that a governor or president has had second thoughts about a pardon, but it is unusual for a chief executive to attempt to undo one that has been made public.  Governor Brown’s attempt to retract the pardon may or may not be effective, but it certainly reflects unfortunate disarray in the administration of the pardon power in California for which other deserving pardon candidates may end up paying.

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