“Vermont sheriff risks his career by hiring a sex offender”

Vermonter Rich Cassidy, who chairs the CCRC Board, drew our attention to this extraordinary story of courage and compassion and plain good sense in the Green Mountain State.  Published last week in the Vermont weekly Seven Days, it tells the story of LaMoille County Sheriff Roger Marcoux Jr.’s decision to take a chance on Timothy Szad, described as “a gifted carpenter and diligent worker” who is also “Lamoille County’s most notorious criminal.”

Here are a few introductory paragraphs to a story well worth reading in full.

In 2000, Szad stalked and sexually assaulted a 13-year-old boy in the southern Vermont woods. He went to jail for his crime and served the maximum sentence. But his punishment didn’t end when he got out, in 2013. His release was widely publicized, which generated something of a vigilante reaction. So he embarked on a cross-country journey in search of a new home. When no place would have him, he wound up back in Vermont — this time, in sleepy Hyde Park.

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Justice Department (or part of it) will no longer use the “f-word”

The Washington Post has published an op ed by a top Justice Department official responsible for grants and contracts announcing that her agency* will no longer use labels like “felon” and “offender” to describe people who have a criminal record.  Assistant Attorney General Karol Mason, who heads the Office of Justice Programs, said that she had recently issued “an agency-wide policy directing our employees to consider how the language we use affects reentry success.”

I have come to believe that we have a responsibility to reduce not only the physical but also the psychological barriers to reintegration.  The labels we affix to those who have served time can drain their sense of self-worth and perpetuate a cycle of crime, the very thing reentry programs are designed to prevent.

This is terrific news, and comes on the heels of a thoughtful editorial by Bill Keller of The Marshall Project proposing that journalists ought to make an effort to avoid disparaging language:

[W]ords that not long ago were used without qualms may come to be regarded as demeaning: “colored,” “illegals.”  “Felon,” which makes the person synonymous with the crime, is such a word. Likewise “convict.”  I’m less troubled by words that describe a temporary status without the suggestion of irredeemable wickedness — “inmate” and “prisoner” and “ex-offender” — but ask me again a year from now.

Ms. Mason’s piece explained further:

This new policy statement replaces unnecessarily disparaging labels with terms like “person who committed a crime” and “individual who was incarcerated,” decoupling past actions from the person being described and anticipating the contributions we expect them to make when they return.  We will be using the new terminology in speeches, solicitations, website content, and social media posts, and I am hopeful that other agencies and organizations will consider doing the same.

Interestingly, the Post editor either didn’t read Ms. Mason’s piece or didn’t agree with it, since the paragraph introducing it used the word “convict” twice.  I guess it just takes time.

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*A note at the bottom of the op ed explains that Ms. Mason’s new policy applies only to OJP and not to the Justice Department as a whole.

“Virginians with a felony conviction can now vote, but getting a job is no easier”

Lincoln Caplan, formerly of the editorial staff of The New York Times and now on the faculty at Yale Law School, has written a thoughtful piece about collateral consequences for the New Yorker.  It points out why Governor McAuliffe’s order restoring the vote to Virginians with a criminal record doesn’t help them deal with the myriad of legal restrictions that deny them opportunities, or with what he calls “a relentless form of social stigma.”  He concludes that relief measures like expungement, which are based on concealing the fact of conviction, may be less effective for felony-level crimes than more transparent measures like pardon or certificates of rehabilitation.  He concludes that “Forgiving, when someone has earned it, gives an individual a fresh start and, just as important, it helps restore the idea of rehabilitation in American justice.”

A featured piece by a well-regarded journalist in such a sophisticated venue may do a lot to bring the problem of collateral consequences to the attention of people in a position to do something about them.  We reprint portions of the article below. Read more

Will Prez Obama make federal contractors ban the box? [Update: Not now.]

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Updated April 29:

According to comments late this week from senior White House adviser Valerie Jarrett, the President remains inclined to defer to Congress when it comes to making federal contractors ban the box:

Asked whether there was consideration of whether to take action to require federal contractors to “ban the box,” Jarrett said, “The president has supported federal legislation that would ban the box for federal contractors. He thinks that’s the best approach.”

The legislation in question appears to have stalled, as noted by its sponsor Rep. Elijah Cummings.  (In a tweet, Jarrett pointed advocates to a 2013 directive of the Office of Federal Contract Compliance reminding contractors of their obligation to comply with the EEOC guidance on criminal records.)

On the other hand, on Friday the administration made good on its November promise to require federal agencies to ban the box, when OPM announced a proposed rule requiring federal agencies to postpone inquiry into an applicant’s criminal record until after a conditional offer of employment has been made.

Also, marking the end of National Reentry Week, the President formally established the Federal Interagency Reentry Council, a Cabinet-level working group dedicated to “the rehabilitation and reintegration of individuals returning to their communities from prisons and jails.”  Originally convened by the Attorney General in 2011, the President’s action ensures that the Council will continue past the end of his Administration.

Original post from April 26:

As the White House inaugural National Reentry Week begins, advocacy organizations and Members of Congress are again calling on President Obama to use his executive authority to “ban the box” in federal contractor hiring, just as he announced he would do in federal agency hiring last November.

The call comes on the heels of a number of steps the Obama Administration has taken to improve the employment prospects of those with criminal histories, including the creation of the Fair Chance Business Pledge earlier this month.  Last fall, the President announced a number of additional reentry initiatives, including establishment of a Clean Slate Clearinghouse.  The President’s overall record on second-chance issues has been commendable, but he will have to move quickly to maximize his administration’s impact before the end of his term.

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“The Other F-word” – A journalist’s perspective on labeling people with a criminal record

On Monday we published a piece by CCRC Director Margaret Love titled “A plea to stop labeling people who have a criminal record,” which was critical of the media’s usage of “degrading” terms like “felon” and “offender” to describe people with criminal histories. Yesterday Bill Keller, Editor-in-Chief of The Marshall Project, responded to Ms. Love’s critique in a piece that provides an interesting look at the issue through the lens of his own experience as a journalist.  It also includes a response from the style editor of The New York Times on the specific subject of Ms. Love’s criticism.  We republish Mr. Keller’s piece below.


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A wide-ranging look at sex offender registration in PA and beyond

The Cumberland County (Pennsylvania) Sentinel recently published a series of articles by Joshua Vaughn that examine the operation and effect of sex offender registration laws from a variety of perspectives. We summarize the articles with links to the Sentinel’s website.


Finding statistics to fit a narrative

Original article

Vaughn traces the “frightening and high risk of recidivism” for untreated sex offenders that Justice Kennedy used to support the Supreme Court’s holdings in McKune v. Lile (2002) and Smith v. Doe (2003) to an unsourced “anecdotal quip” in a 1986 article from Psychology Today suggesting sex offender recidivism rates as high as 80%.  That figure found its way into a Justice Department practitioner’s guide for treating incarcerated sex offenders, which in turn was cited by the Solicitor General’s amicus brief in McKune. Vaughn, asking how such a questionable statistic could turn out to be a “linchpin fact” in two extremely influential Supreme Court cases, proposes that the Court relied on the Solicitor General, who in turn relied on the practice guide without doing his own research.

Vaughn reports that the Justice Department “now states on its website that the rate at which released sexual offenders are rearrested for new sexual offenses is as low as 3 to 10 percent,” evidently referring to a report of the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

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Reentry efforts undermined by collateral consequences

roadblockEditor’s note: Earlier this week Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced that The Justice Department has christened the week of April 24-30 “National Reentry Week.”  In the announcement, the Attorney General highlighted  “the major steps [taken by the Obama administration] to make our criminal justice system more fair, more efficient, and more effective at reducing recidivism and helping formerly incarcerated individuals contribute to their communities.”  The announcement prompted Art Beeler, a former warden in the federal correctional system and current member of the North Carolina Sentencing Commission, to consider the place that collateral consequences ought to have in our national dialog about reentry, recidivism, and public safety.


As a warden with the Federal Bureau of Prisons for more than twenty years, I know that successful evidence-based reentry programs are essential if we are going to reduce recidivism and increase public safety.  So it was with great interest that I read U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s letter celebrating reentry week.  I applaud the growing focus on reentry programming, which is essential, but I believe that we must acknowledge that we will never achieve the goal of reintegrating those convicted of crimes back into society without fully addressing the problem posed by collateral consequences.  The federal government has already taken some steps a to reevaluate collateral consequences imposed by federal regulations, as the AG notes in her letter, but successful reentry efforts demand a full reevaluation of the intent and effect of collateral consequences at both the federal and state level.

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New federal screening requirements for child care workers

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Child care workers in every state are subject to rigorous criminal background checks that may result in mandatory bars to employment. Until now, each state has been generally free to define its own standards regarding screening for criminal history. That is about to change.

By September of next year, states receiving funds under the federal Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) Act of 2014 (which appropriates over $ 2.5 billion each year to fund state child care and child welfare programs) must adopt minimum federally-defined screening standards for child care workers or risk loss of funding. The revised statutory standards subject current and prospective child care workers to a multi-level criminal background check and disqualify from employment anyone convicted of crimes against children, specified violent crimes, and drug crimes within the past 5 years.  States may opt to waive the disqualification for drug crimes on a case-by-case basis, but they are also free to adopt conviction-based disqualifications that are more restrictive than the law requires.

If the new CCDBG standards were not bad enough, the Department of Health and Human Services has issued proposed rules that would make them worse.  On Monday, the CCRC joined a coalition of organizations led by the National Employment Law Project in calling on HHS to rethink proposed rules that would implement the new screening requirements. A formal comment filed by the coalition details the ways in which the proposed rules fail to adequately address the disparate impact that the requirements could have on women, African Americans, and Latinos, and takes issue with requirements in the rules that are more exclusionary than the Act requires. Read more

Slate asks why presidents are granting less clemency; Justice answers

Slate has posted a new piece by Leon Neyfakh entitled “The Pardon Process Is Broken.”  The piece points out that “presidents are granting clemency far less often than they once did,” and asks “Why?”  It answers its own question by distilling an article by Margaret Love to be published in the Toledo Law Review, which argues that the low grant rate reflects overwhelmingly negative recommendations from the Justice Department.  In response to Slate’s invitation, Justice had the following comments on Love’s proposal:

The mission of the Department of Justice is to enforce the law and defend the interests of the United States according to the law; to ensure public safety against threats foreign and domestic; to provide federal leadership in preventing and controlling crime; to seek just punishment for those guilty of unlawful behavior; and to ensure fair and impartial administration of justice for all Americans. The work of the Office of the Pardon Attorney is an integral part of the Department’s mission.

These comments seem to concede the point that the Office of the Pardon Attorney has ceased to operate as an independent source of advice for the president in clemency matters, but instead has become an extension of the law enforcement agenda of the Department’s prosecutors.  They evidence the key role the Justice Department has played in the atrophy of the constitutional pardon power.

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Why should expungement be limited to “nonviolent” crimes? Dissecting the REDEEM Act (II)

The REDEEM Act currently in committee in the U.S. Senate provides the first authority for “sealing” federal criminal records since the repeal of the Youth Corrections Act in 1984.  As we described in an earlier post, the Act would provide significant relief from many of the collateral consequences imposed on those with a federal rap sheet.  But the Act’s limitation on eligibility to “nonviolent” crimes, together with its corresponding restriction on consideration of state priors, threaten to undermine the Act’s beneficent purpose — not simply by categorically excluding many deserving individuals from relief, but also by inviting endless wrangling over which particular individuals are deserving.

Increasingly, scholars and advocates are questioning the glib and thoughtless distinction politicians have for years drawn between violent and non-violent crimes for purposes of sentencing.  The unfairness of categorically excluding all offenses falling within a broad definition of violence, without regard to how long ago the conduct occurred or how minor, is compounded when the record sought to be sealed did not result in a conviction.

But perhaps the most persuasive reason for federal lawmakers to junk the distinction between violent and nonviolent offenses is a practical one, since it is frequently impossible to determine if a particular federal crime is violent or not, as the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Johnson v. United States demonstrates.  If the distinction must be retained, definitions need to be clarified lest disputes over coverage result in few people actually getting relief.  The good news is that the necessary fix is a simple one:  rather than defining vaguely which offenses are eligible for sealing, the REDEEM Act should define precisely which offenses are not.

We start with a description of the REDEEM Act’s eligibility criteria, then show why they will give the government an opportunity to frustrate the Act’s intent.  Indeed, a wag has described them as catnip for the litigious.

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