A second chance — if you can pay for it

The surest way to avoid the collateral consequences of conviction is to avoid conviction in the first place. Pre-trial diversion programs offer defendants a chance to do just that, by having the charges against them dismissed before they even reach court. But there is often a catch that puts this benefit out of reach for those of limited means.

Diversion programs are controlled by prosecutors, who may condition dismissal of charges on the defendant’s participation in educational, rehabilitation, or community service programs for which the defendant must foot the bill.  These costs, along with attendant administrative fees set by prosecutors, can price out many of the low-income defendants who stand to benefit most from the second chance that diversion promises.  Even if defendants can come up with the necessary cash for participation, they may find the promised relief illusory.  Because prosecutors have near total control over the programs, deciding who is eligible and what is required, defendants must first convince prosecutors that they are worth taking a chance on before the opportunity will be offered.

An illuminating two-part expose’ in last week’s New York Times (“No Money, No Mercy“) takes a close look at how these programs operate, and the fate of defendants who have worked to earn a second chance but find themselves ultimately unable to afford it or benefit from it. Since prosecutorial control of the programs obscures their operation to a large extent, The Times “gathered information, statutes and fee schedules on 225 diversion programs in 37 states and interviewed more than 150 prosecutors, defense lawyers, defendants and experts,” to develop a sobering national overview.  The piece documents how the burden of a criminal record is imposed disproportionately and unfairly on people of color and limited means through unreviewable decisions of prosecutors, effectively re-creating the peonage that replaced slavery immediately after the Civil War.

You can read The Times’ full expose, “After a Crime, the Price of a Second Chance,” here. The second part of the series focuses on Dothan County, Alabama to detail some of the more egregious racial and class inequities that result from high fees and prosecutorial control.  See “Alabama Prosecutor Sets the Penalties and Fills the Coffers,” linked here.   A follow-up piece published on January 6 (“Forcing a District Attorney’s Hand”) documents the difficulties experienced by the Times reporter and photographer in obtaining the Dothan County story.  The Times published a Letter to the Editor commenting on the series by CCRC Executive Director Margaret Love.

We summarize the broad points of the series below, but highly recommend reading it in full.

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Federal judges challenge collateral consequences

Federal judges have begun speaking out about the burdens imposed by severe collateral consequences and the limited ability of courts to mitigate the resulting harm.  This is particularly true in the Eastern District of New York, where some judges have openly lamented the lack of statutory federal expungement authority and have used their opinions and orders to call upon the legislature to ensure that those with criminal records are given a fair shot at success.  Among the more vocal critics of collateral consequences is recently retired Judge John Gleeson, who last year took the extraordinary step of expunging one woman’s criminal record despite acknowledged uncertainty about his authority to do so.  In another case, Judge Gleeson crafted an alternative more transparent form of relief, a federal “certificate of rehabilitation.”  (You can find our extensive coverage of these cases here).

In a new article titled “Judicial Challenges to the Collateral Impact of Criminal Convictions: Is True Change in the Offing?,” Nora Demleitner takes a look at how the criticisms of members of the federal bench may shape the framework in which second chance laws and policies are considered, both at the legislative and judicial level, and how they may or may not affect the prospect of significant reform.

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New role for veep: chief clemency adviser?

A forthcoming article in the Harvard Journal of Law and Policy argues that the federal pardon process ought to be restructured to make the vice president the president’s chief clemency adviser.  Paul Larkin of the Heritage Foundation proposes that pardon recommendations ought to be made by an board chaired by the vice president located in the Executive Office of the President.  This intriguing idea may appeal to the Trump Administration, particularly since the new vice president has had some experience with pardoning as governor of Indiana.

Here is the abstract of the article:

The need for reconsideration of the federal clemency process is a real one, and there is a consensus that the Justice Department should no longer play its traditional doorkeeper role. Using the vice president as the new chief presidential clemency adviser offers the president several unique benefits that no other individual can supply without having enjoyed a prior close personal relationship with the chief executive. Whoever is sworn into office at noon on January 20, 2017, as the nation’s 45th President should seriously consider using as his principal clemency adviser the person who was sworn into the vice presidency immediately beforehand. The president, clemency applicants, and the public might just benefit from that new arrangement.

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Expungement in Pennsylvania explained

imagesPennsylvania has been active in recent years in expanding its judicial relief mechanisms, though it still has a long way to go to catch up to states like Kentucky, Missouri, and New Jersey, which have in the past 12 months extended their expungement laws to some felonies and/or reduced waiting periods.  No one has been more active and effective in the effort to increase the availability of “clean slate” judicial remedies than Sharon Dietrich, Litigation Director for Community Legal Services of Philadelphia.   Sharon has written a comprehensive guide to existing authorities on expungement and sealing in her state, which also discusses pending bills that would extend these laws.  The abstract follows:

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Manslaughter plea vacated to avoid licensing bar

A former University of Maryland student who pled guilty last April to throwing a punch that resulted in the death of a fellow student, has been allowed the benefit of a nonconviction disposition that will likely result in the expungement of his record. According to a report in the Washington Post,

Prince George’s County Judge Albert W. Northrop ordered the manslaughter conviction of Arasp Biparva in the 2014 killing of Jack Godfrey vacated. The judge also granted Biparva probation before judgment, which means the charges can later be expunged from public records.

The modified sentence will help Biparva, 25, as he finds a job in accounting, according to his attorney.

“Currently the conviction will interfere with the application process and prevent Mr. Biparva from obtaining the certifications he needs to advance his career,” his attorney, Barry Helfand, said in a request for the modified sentence.

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Federal pardon filings skyrocket, but pardon grants still down

New clemency statistics just posted on the Pardon Attorney’s website show that almost 1000 petitions for full pardon were filed in FY 2016, and that more than 1900 pardon petitions are presently pending.   We have become accustomed to seeing huge numbers of commutation filings, but the large number of pardon filings is much more surprising in light of President Obama’s meager pardon grant rate to date.  The 998 petitions filed in the 12-month period just concluded are almost twice the number filed in any single year since the Roosevelt Administration, including in the analogous period in the Bush 43 presidency. We reported in August that there were 1378 pardon petitions pending in June – which means that 550 new petitions must have been filed in less than 4 months.  That’s as many pardon petitions as have been filed in any full year in the past 75 years.

In August we reported on President Obama’s stated intention to grant a large number of full pardons before the end of his term, in addition to sentence commutations: “I would argue that by the time I leave office, the number of pardons that we grant will be roughly in line with what other presidents have done.”  But to match even George W. Bush’s 189 pardon grants, President Obama will have to grant more than 120 pardons in the next three months.

White House Counsel Neil Eggleston stated yesterday that the number of commutation grants since 2014 “make clear that the President and his administration have succeeded in efforts to reinvigorate the clemency process.”  But without action on the pardon side of the clemency docket it is too early to claim more than partial success.

Indiana courts interpret new expungement law

On September 15, 2016, the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed a lower court’s denial of expungement to a woman convicted 13 years before of forgery and drug-dealing, holding that the court abused its discretion in denying relief where the case fully met the statutory standards. The decision provides a window into how one of the Nation’s most expansive new expungement laws is being interpreted and enforced by the courts of the state. Judging by this decision, the approach to restoration of rights in this otherwise-conservative state remains encouraging.

Here is Olivia Covington’s article from the Indiana Lawyer reporting on the decision, with a link to its full text.

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Can the pardon power be revived through procedural reforms?

Mark Osler has posted a new piece arguing for an overhaul of the federal pardon process so that it more closely resembles efficient and productive state clemency systems. He argues that flaws in the process for administering the power, rather than a failure of executive will, have prevented President Obama from carrying out his ambitious clemency agenda directed atlong-sentenced drug offenders.  Streamlining the process will enable presidents to use the power more generously and effectively.

This seems to us to an oversimplified solution to the theoretical and practical problems with what President Obama has been trying to do. Moreover, at least in the absence of constitutional amendment, any structural changes in the federal pardon process would have to be reaffirmed by each new president, and would likely be opposed by the Justice Department and Congress.

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Federal expungement order reversed on appeal

In an eagerly awaited decision, a panel of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that federal courts have no authority to expunge the records of a valid conviction.  As Joe Palazzolo at the Wall Street Journal noted, this effectively “put an end to an experiment by a Brooklyn judge that drew attention to the challenges people with criminal records face trying to find and keep jobs.”  In reversing Judge John Gleeson’s May 2015 expungement order in the case of a woman he had sentenced more than a decade before, the court distinguished its precedent upholding a court’s power to expunge arrest records following dismissal of charges.  The panel pointed out that

a motion to expunge records of a valid conviction on equitable grounds will ordinarily be premised on events that are unrelated to the sentencing and that transpire long after the conviction itself.  For example, in this case the facts underlying the District Court’s sentencing were clearly independent of the facts developed in Doe’s motion filed years later.  Conversely, the District Court granted Doe’s motion based on facts and events (her repeated efforts to obtain employment) that transpired years after her sentencing and term of probation.

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Prez promises to catch up on pardons — but he’s far behind

We have wondered whether President Obama would ever turn his attention to what has become the red-headed stepchild of the clemency caseload: full pardons to restore rights and status after service of sentence.  To date President Obama has focused on commuting prison sentences, and has issued fewer pardons than any full-term president since the Civil War.  It appears that the time may be at hand.

The Politico reported on Thursday that at a press conference the day after his most recent batch of sentence commutations, President Obama said he intended to grant more full pardons before the end of his term – a lot more.

At a news conference at the Pentagon on Thursday, a reporter [Greg Korte of USA Today] noted that Obama has been the stingiest two-term president on forgiveness since John Adams.  Obama acknowledged that his administration has “focused more on commutations than we have on pardons.” “I would argue,” he continued, “that by the time I leave office, the number of pardons that we grant will be roughly in line with what other presidents have done.”

The President also indicated that he did not intend to change his pardoning practices at the end of his term: “The process that I’ve put in place is not going to vary depending on how close I get to the election.”

President Obama will no doubt grant more full pardons before the end of his term, in addition to more commutations.  But it will be a tall order for him to match his predecessors even “roughly” in absolute number of pardons.  For example, George W. Bush granted 189 pardons, Bill Clinton granted 396, and Ronald Reagan granted 393.  Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford granted 593 and 382 full pardons, respectively. By contrast, after seven and a half years Obama has granted a total of only 66 full pardons (not counting the four pre-conviction pardons granted to Iranians prior in last year’s foreign policy “swap”).  Only George H.W. Bush had issued fewer grants nearing the end of his tenure — and to be fair he served only one term and received far fewer applications.

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