“On Lawyering” on collateral consequences

The following post was originally published at On Lawyering, CCRC President Rich Cassidy’s blog on the law and culture of lawyering. 

Judge Rules That That the Collateral Consequences of Conviction Justify the Release of a Drug Offender

“Earth’s most impassable barriers – as Lincoln the lawyer knew, as Lincoln the writer knew – are often those formed not of walls and trenches, nor even of mountains and oceans, but of laws and words.”[1]

Senior United States District Judge Fredric Block, in an opinion issued on May 24, [2] ruled that the collateral consequences faced by a 20 year old woman convicted of smuggling 602 grams of cocaine into the United States from Jamaica, justified a one year term of probation, even though she faced a guideline sentence of 33-41 months of imprisonment.

Judge Block reviewed the history of collateral consequences, concluding that “[t]oday, the collateral consequences of a felony conviction form a new civil death[,]”[3] referring to the scholarly work of my colleagues, Gabriel Jack Chin and Margaret Love. He decried the racially disparate impact of these laws, citing Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow (2010). He noted the existence of collateral consequence reform efforts including an ABA Criminal Justice Standard [4]and the Uniform Collateral Consequence of Conviction Act.[5] He pointed out the sweeping breadth of collateral consequences, noting that according to the National Inventory of the Collateral Consequences of Conviction, nationwide there are some 50,000 federal and state statutes and regulations that impose collateral consequences and that some 70 to 100 million Americans are subject to them.[6]

Judge Block reviewed the state of the law, noting that while there is a split in the circuits, the law in the Second Circuit allows a sentencing judge to consider“the impact and significance of the collateral consequences facing a convicted felon as bearing upon a just punishment.”[7]

Finally, Judge Block put the idea into practice: he reviewed, in some detail, the collateral consequences the defendant faces, their likely impact on her life, and concluded:

[T]he collateral consequences Ms. Nesbeth will suffer, and is likely to suffer – principally her likely inability to pursue a teaching career and her goal of becoming a principal, Conn. Gen. Stat. §§ 10-145b, 145i – has compelled me to conclude that she has been sufficiently punished, and that jail is not necessary to render a punishment that is sufficient but not greater than necessary to meet the ends of sentencing.[8]

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Federal sentencing and collateral consequences

This practice resource is available in PDF format here.  A follow-up piece, “Federal sentencing and collateral consequences II,” is here.


 

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.

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Federal sentences and collateral consequences

courtsFederal 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

Long waits for expungement frustrate public safety purposes

whiteegret2Recently, in commenting on a new expungement scheme enacted by the Louisiana legislature, we noted the disconnect between the stated reentry-related purposes of the law and its lengthy eligibility waiting periods.  If people have to log many years of law-abiding conduct before they can even apply for this relief, it is not likely to be of much help to people returning home from prison.  Were Louisiana lawmakers unaware that the new expungement law would be unlikely to serve its stated purposes, or did they have some reason for advertising the new law in terms they knew were inapt.

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Good news, bad news: New York’s drug law reform and collateral consequences

index,newyorjThe Vera Institute has issued a first-rate assessment of the effect of the Rockefeller drug law reforms in New York City.  See End of an Era?  The Impact of Drug Law Reform in New York City.   The report found that as a result of the reforms far more people were diverted out of the justice system and into treatment, thus avoiding conviction and the attendant collateral consequences.  On the other hand, for those not diverted, the report found that the repeal of mandatory minimums led prosecutors to look for other ways to leverage plea bargains, leading to more felony convictions and more severe collateral consequences than under the old laws.  Sentencing reformers in other jurisdictions should take note.

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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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