The Democrat who would be the “Reentry President”: James Webb

This week’s New Yorker features an article by Ryan Lizza about potential democratic candidates.  One, James Webb, former U.S. Senator from Virginia, has a history of interest in prisons and reentry of people with convictions.  The article states:

Jim Webb speaks about his bill about Iran in Washington“In the Senate, he pushed for creating a national commission that would study the American prison system, and he convened hearings on the economic consequences of mass incarceration. He says he even hired three staffers who had criminal records. ‘If you have been in prison, God help you if you want to really rebuild your life,’ Webb told me. ‘We’ve got seven million people somehow involved in the system right now, and they need a structured way to reënter society and be productive again.’ He didn’t mention it, but he is aware that the prison population in the U.S. exploded after the Clinton Administration signed tough new sentencing laws.”

Of course, reentry is not necessarily a partisan issue; President George W. Bush also cared about it, calling America “the land of second chance” in his 2004 State of the Union address, and signing into law the Second Chance Act.  It will be interesting to see if prison spending and reentry become issues in the primaries or the general election.

Labels and stereotypes in the President’s immigration speech

obama-immigration-speechThe President’s decision to take unilateral executive action to insulate certain undocumented immigrants from the immediate threat of deportation has provoked outrage in some quarters and profound relief in others.   The legal issues raised by this decision are important and debatable, some of its line-drawing is problematic, and its success stands or falls on the uncertain terrain of bureaucratic discretion.  No doubt its political implications are yet to be revealed.

But amid all the uncertainty, one thing is clear.  In his speech announcing the initiative the President said, repeatedly and definitively, that no one with a criminal record would benefit from his reprieve.   Thus, he emphasized that enforcement resources would remain focused on “actual threats to our security,” by which he meant “Felons, not families. Criminals, not children.”   Again, it is possible to benefit from the law if you can “pass a criminal background check” (whatever that means), but “[i]f you’re a criminal, you’ll be deported.”   Even people convicted of misdemeanors will not be spared under the new DHS enforcement priorities.

Entirely apart from the wisdom or fairness of the immigration policy choice involved in this broad blanket exclusion (and there are good reasons to be critical of it), it was disheartening to hear the President present it in such unfortunate language.  The ugly labels of “felon” and “criminal” do, after all, at least technically describe a status shared by 25% of adult Americans.  Labels like these serve only to demonize and exclude, and they are fundamentally at odds with our national policy of encouraging rehabilitation to reduce crime.  There were other ways the President could have justified continuing his policy of deporting based on criminal record than by using words that do more to stir up fear of “the other” than to describe relevant functional attributes.

The President’s words suggest that people who have been convicted of a crime are evermore to be regarded as “felons” and “criminals,” categorically threatening to our safety and security, and uniformly deserving to be segregated and sent away.  But he himself pardoned such a person less than two years ago, precisely to keep her from being deported. And he is surely aware of the bipartisan conversation now underway about the need to curb over-criminalization, one of the few matters on which Republicans and Democrats can agree.   It is tempting to take linguistic shortcuts when politically expedient, but it is a temptation he might have resisted without jeopardizing his larger objective.

It is time we stopped using negative stereotypes and labels to describe people who at some point in their past have committed a crime, in the immigration context or otherwise.  It is no longer acceptable to describe undocumented immigrants as “illegal aliens.”  Our language needs a similar makeover where past convictions are concerned.

Playing nice in criminal court: “Crashing the Misdemeanor System”

As the Supreme Court recently acknowledged in Lafler v. Cooper (2012), American criminal justice “is for the most part a system of pleas, not a system of trials.”  Nowhere is that statement truer than in the lower courts, where millions of misdemeanor arrests are resolved, or, to use the lingo of the criminal court, “disposed of,” without even a whiff of a trial.

In a provocative New York Times Op-Ed, “Go to Trial: Crash the Justice System,” Michelle Alexander raised the prospect of organizing people to refuse to plea bargain.  Professor Jenny Roberts takes a cue from Alexander and manages to be even more rebellious.  In Crashing the Misdemeanor System, 70 Wash. & Lee L. Rev. 1089 (2013), she urges much more specifically that defense attorneys focus their energy on taking down extant misdemeanor systems that are best characterized as guilty plea mills.

Roberts argues that “the most minor misdemeanor conviction has serious implications for so many people,” and bemoans the fact that nevertheless most misdemeanors are given short shrift by all institutional players — judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys alike.  Her article is a clarion call for defense attorneys to reimagine, refocus and reinvigorate their misdemeanor practice, especially in an era of massive arrests for minor crimes made popular by Broken Windows, or quality-of-life, policing.

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“The Evolution of a Prison Reformer”

4404748294_c6b5f2a596On November 10, The Crime Report posted a profile of CCRC Board member Glenn Martin and the organization he founded, Just Leadership USA.  Just Leadership is dedicated to cutting the US prison population in half by 2030 and to training formerly incarcerated individuals to become leaders in promoting criminal justice reform.  Martin himself spent six years in the New York prison system, and later served for more than a decade in key positions at The Fortune Society and Legal Action Center.

The profile describes Martin’s participation last October in an unprecedented meeting between Obama Administration officials and leaders of the community of formerly incarcerated individuals, organized by the Attorney General Office’s Interagency Reentry Council.  The meeting focused on sentencing reform, but it presented an unusual opportunity to challenge some stereotypes about who should be at the table when reform is discussed.

At its core, Martin said, Just Leadership challenges some people’s broad assumption that formerly incarcerated people “can’t read or write” or smartly weigh in on the socially and emotionally tangled issues of crime, courts and corrections.

For the most part, the individuals leading that discussion tend not to have been imprisoned. Although many of them play significant roles in the courts, corrections and policing, some harbor ideals and opinions that are not always grounded in fact, Martin argues.

“You don’t achieve a moral argument for reform if you do what [so-called] progressives have been doing for years, serving up the ‘perfect prisoner’ who is the first-time, non-violent drug offender . . . .  That person . . . actually doesn’t go to prison. I’ve never met him. That’s the person who went home from the courthouse. By the time [most] people end up in prison, they have multiple convictions.”

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Minnesota project examines how different life would be with a criminal record

weareallcriminals

WeAreAllCriminals.org

One in four people in the United States has a criminal record. It’s a record used by the vast majority of employers, legislators, landlords, and licensing boards to craft policies and determine the character of an individual.  In our electronic and data age, it typically does not disappear, regardless of how long it’s been or how far one’s come. The effect is an endless sentence, precluding countless opportunities to move on or move up in life.

But what about the other 75%?

We Are All Criminals is a documentary project that looks at the three in four people in the US who have the luxury of living without an official reminder of a past mistake.  Participants tell stories of crimes they got away with.  They are doctors and lawyers, social workers and students, retailers and retirees who consider how very different their lives could have been had they been caught; these confessions are juxtaposed with stories of people who were caught for similar offenses.

The stories are of youth, boredom, intoxication, and porta potties. They are humorous, humiliating, and humbling in turn. They are privately held memories without public stigma; they are criminal histories without criminal records.

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NY Times spotlights the growing popularity of “ban-the-box” laws

An article on the front page of today’s New York Times describes the growing popularity of “ban-the-box” laws to help people with a criminal record get jobs.  The article also discusses the massive hurdles to employment that many with a criminal conviction in their past — some of which are for minor offenses that are a decade or more old — face without such laws in place to ensure fair hiring practices.

The National Employment Law Project (“NELP”) keeps track of the growing number of states and cities that have adopted ban-the-box laws, including summaries of the laws and policies in those jurisdictions.  NELP’s current guide to state and local ban-the-box laws (including coverage of legislative initiatives) can be found here.

From the article:

During the past several months, states and cities as varied as Illinois; Nebraska; New Jersey; Indianapolis; Louisville, Ky.; and New Orleans and have adopted so-called Ban the Box laws. In total, some 70 cities and 13 states have passed such laws — most in the past four years.

The laws generally prohibit employers from asking applicants about criminal records as an initial step in the hiring process and from running criminal background checks until job seekers are considered serious candidates for an opening.

Studies have found that ex-offenders, particularly African-Americans, are far less likely to be called back for job interviews if they check the criminal history box on applications, even though research has shown that those possessing a criminal record are no more apt to commit a crime in the workplace than colleagues who have never been convicted.

The Times has posted some interesting responses from the founders of the Pennsylvania-based Fair Employment Opportunities Project (and others) here.  The attorneys behind the Project argue for additional restrictions on the use of criminal history information once it has been disclosed to employers:

While “Ban the Box” laws that forbid asking about a person’s criminal history are a good first step, we need stronger laws to empower job applicants with arrest or conviction records to become self-sufficient through employment. Several states already have such statutes, including Pennsylvania, where the Fair Employment Opportunities Project is working to educate employers and the public about the law.

Pennsylvania’s statute [18 Pa.C.S. § 9125] could be a model for other states. It forbids employers from considering non-convictions (like acquittals) when making hiring decisions. Convictions may be considered only to the extent they relate to the applicant’s suitability for the job. And when employers reject applicants because of their records, they must give written notice — an important safeguard, because criminal record databases are notoriously error-ridden and ensnare even people who were charged but never convicted.

Gubernatorial candidate brings clemency issues to forefront of Maryland race

Larry Hogan, Republican candidate in the Maryland gubernatorial race, criticized current governor Martin O’Malley’s sparing use of executive clemency and pardon power.

As reported in the Washington Post:

Republican Larry Hogan says a governor’s authority to commute sentences and pardon prisoners is an important power that he would rejuvenate if he is elected governor.

Hogan spoke in an interview with reporters of The Associated Press on Monday. Hogan says he believes Gov. Martin O’Malley’s administration hasn’t made pardons and commutations a priority of his tenure. Hogan says while he considers himself to be a tough law and order candidate, there are people who need the pardon and commutation process. He says he would seek help former Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s help in using the power more.

New York colleges told to “ban the box” on admissions form

The website of the Center for Community Alternatives announces this important development involving college admissions:

The campaign to eliminate barriers to higher education for people with criminal history records, led by the Education from the Inside Out Coalition, is gaining traction. Less than a month ago, the New York Times Editorial Board called for colleges to remove the question about criminal records from college admissions applications. Today, the New York State’s Attorney General’s office announced a settlement with three colleges in New York state, that will end their practice of asking applicants if they have ever been arrested. The New York Times article about the settlement cites CCA’s study to support the Attorney General’s actions.

Link to the New York Times editorial.

Link to the New York Times article.

Link to the Attorney General’s Press Release.

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