Last week was an exciting one for proponents of the expansion of college opportunities for people who are currently incarcerated or who have criminal records. Two reports were released that propose strategies to break the cycle of recidivism, promote public safety, and de-escalate mass incarceration by opening up post-secondary educational opportunities. It is fitting that both reports come at a time when America is reflecting on the events of “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Alabama, fifty years ago, and envisioning where the momentum of Black Lives Matter will take us. It is the intersection of an historic civil rights struggle, the human rights movement that confronts “mass criminalization” and the racial divide in the U.S. today.
The Stanford Criminal Justice Center and the Warren Institute at the UC Berkeley School of Law issued a report from the Renewing Communities Initiative, Degrees of Freedom: Expanding College Opportunities for Currently and Formerly Incarcerated Californians. It was released just days after the Center for Community Alternatives (CCA) in cooperation with the Education from the Inside Out Coalition (EIO Coalition), issued its report, Boxed Out: Criminal History Screening and College Application Attrition, the subject of an earlier post on March 4, 2015.
Last week the Center for Community Alternatives in cooperation with the Education from the Inside Out Coalition released Boxed Out: Criminal History Screening and College Application Attrition. With this new study and report we build upon our 2010 study, The Use of Criminal History Records in College Admissions Reconsidered. The Reconsidered study showed that a growing number of colleges and universities are asking about criminal history information during the application process: two-thirds of the colleges and universities we surveyed reported that they do so. Yet, as we discussed in the Reconsidered study, there is no empirical evidence to indicate that criminal history screening makes college campuses any safer.
The certificate system for restoring rights after conviction in New York no longer serves its intended purposes, according to an investigation by City Limits. The problem is that Certificates of Relief from Disabilities (CRD) are supposed to be a means to rehabilitation for people sentenced to probation, but the judges authorized to issue them see them (in the words of one public defender) “as a gold star, as a thing you get after you’ve been rehabilitated.” The Parole Board appears similarly Read more
The 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.
The Vera Institute has published a new report that claims states are “rethinking” collateral consequences through enactment of laws intended to mitigate their impact. The report (Relief in Sight? States Rethink the Collateral Consequences of Criminal Conviction, 2009-2014) includes an excellent introduction to the issues, helpfully categorizes different types of relief measures, and makes a number of useful recommendations for future reform.
However, the report seems unduly sanguine in suggesting that wholesale dismantling of the regime of collateral penalties is just around the corner, or that reforms of the past five years augur a sea change in public attitudes. Of greater practical concern, the report has methodological shortcomings that limit its usefulness as a research and advocacy tool.
In a recent national study of case processing in the nation’s misdemeanor courts, Wall Street Journal reporters Gary Fields and John Emschwiller document how “blindingly swift” justice is for the “millions of Americans charged each year with misdemeanor crimes”:
In Florida, misdemeanor courts routinely disposed of cases in three minutes or less, usually with a guilty plea, according to a 2011 National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers study. In Detroit, court statistics show, a district judge on an average day has over 100 misdemeanor cases on his or her docket–or one every four minutes. In Miami, public defenders often hardly have time to introduce themselves to their misdemeanor clients before the cases are over. . . . In a Houston courtroom one day recently, defendants–sometimes individually, sometimes in groups of up to nine . . . , pleaded guilty, received their sentences and got a “good luck” from the judge in less than 30 seconds.
It appears that very little has changed in the forty years since the Supreme Court in Argersinger v. Hamlin bemoaned the assembly line that characterized the processing of misdemeanor offenses at that time. The Court noted:
Wherever the visitor looks at the system, he finds great numbers of defendants being processed by harassed and overworked officials. Suddenly it becomes clear that, for most defendants in the criminal process, there is scant regard for them as individuals. They are numbers on dockets, faceless ones to be processed and sent on their way.” (emphasis added)
The Argersinger Court noted that uncounseled defendants were pleading guilty, often at their initial appearance before a judge, and that there were harmful consequences that flowed from convictions of even so-called minor crimes. To remedy the national crisis in misdemeanor courts that existed even in the 1970s, the Court held that the Gideon right to Read more
Earlier this week, the Center for American Progress published a new report on the effect of the proliferation of criminal records in a nation of mass incarceration and criminalization. The report (“One Strike and You’re Out: How We Can Eliminate Barriers to Economic Security and Mobility for People with Criminal Records”) explores the debilitating effect that a criminal record – including records for relatively minor offenses and for arrests that did not result in a conviction – can have on an individual’s access to housing, public assistance, education, family stability, and, in turn, their prospects for economic stability. The report’s authors are Rebecca Vallas of the Center for American Progress’s Poverty and Prosperity Program, and Sharon Dietrich of Community Legal Services of Philadelphia (and of our own CCRC Board).
The report makes the point that the proliferation of criminal records, and the ease with which they can be accessed, harms not only individuals but society as a whole. The collateral consequences of a criminal record result in employment losses of $65 billion a year in GDP according to one study cited. Another study estimates that the national poverty rate would have dropped by 20 percent between 1980 and 2004 if not for mass incarceration and the accompanying criminal record crisis. The report notes that the war on drugs and the “criminalization of poverty” has resulted in a disproportionately high incidence of justice system contact in communities of color. Criminal records are thus both a cause of poverty and a consequence of poverty.
A new report from the Vera Institute, On Life Support: Public Health in the Age of Mass Incarceration, highlights the “contagious” health effects of incarceration on the already unstable communities to which most of the 700,000 inmates released from prison each year will return. The report argues that high rates of incarceration among residents in these communities are “one of the major contributors to poor health in communities,” and that this has “further contributed to diminished educational opportunities, fractured family structures, stagnated economic mobility, limited housing options, and restricted access to essential social entitlements.” In “a political landscape ripe for reform” of these cascading collateral consequences of conviction, the report finds significant promise in the Affordable Care Act:
The passage of the ACA in 2010 was a watershed moment in U.S. history. State and local governments are increasingly realizing the opportunities created by the ACA to develop partnerships between health and justice systems that simultaneously abate health disparities and enhance public safety. A number of the legislation’s key provisions—the expansion of Medicaid, increased coverage and parity for mental health and substance use services, and incentives for creating innovative service delivery models for populations with complex health needs—provide new funding streams and tools for policymakers to strengthen existing programs and develop solutions to reduce mass incarceration.90 The ACA creates critical opportunities for states, local governments, and healthcare stakeholders to greatly expand the capacity of their community health systems to better meet the needs of underserved populations, curb the flow of medically-underserved populations into jails and prisons, pursue collaborative programming to plug service gaps between health and justice systems, and ensure that people are able to receive services in the community that are essential for health. …
This month the Juvenile Law Center released an impressive pair of reports evaluating national policy on public access to juvenile criminal records. The first report, Juvenile Records: A National Review of State Laws on Confidentiality, Sealing and Expungement, provides a national overview of state laws, and proposes standards to mitigate exposure to collateral consequences as a result of a juvenile record. The report also makes recommendations for policy-makers, courts, defense attorneys, and youth-serving agencies. Supplementing the national overview are fact sheets on the law in each state, including the availability and effect of expungement or sealing, and an overview of the process for obtaining such relief. (These fact sheets can be found by clicking on the relevant state on the map here).
A second complementary report, Failed Policies, Forfeited Futures: A Nationwide Scorecard on Juvenile Records, scores each state on the degree to which it meets the Center’s ideal standards for juvenile record protection. The Center based its evaluation of the states on its “core principles for record protection” including:
This New York Times editorial urges states to seal or expunge juvenile records “so that young offenders are not permanently impaired by their youthful transgressions.” It describes a new study from the Juvenile Law Center that concludes “only a few states have ironclad systems prohibiting employers and members of the public from gaining access to [juvenile] records.”
The first juvenile courts were established more than a century ago on the principle that children deserve special care under the law because they are vulnerable, because their transgressions tend to be nonviolent and because they can be expected, on the whole, to outgrow their youthful misbehavior.
These presumptions are borne out by data showing that 95 percent of young people enter the juvenile justice system for nonviolent crimes like theft or vandalism — behavior they typically leave behind when they move into adulthood. But because some juvenile court records remain open to the public when they should have been sealed or expunged, these young people can be denied jobs, housing and even admission to college.