New York certificates of relief fall short in practice

New York’s venerable certificate of relief scheme, which aims to mitigate the adverse collateral effects of criminal conviction, has served as a blueprint for certificate laws recently adopted in many other states.  But are New York’s certificates actually effective at restoring rights and status? That is a question addressed in two new scholarly articles, both of which find that New York’s certificates are frequently inaccessible to their intended beneficiaries and misunderstood both by the officials tasked with issuing them and the employers and licensing boards that should be giving them effect.

Governor Cuomo recently directed reforms in the process for obtaining certificates in response to a report concluding that it has “historically been burdensome and slow.”  These articles should be useful in that effort.

Both articles use interviews and anecdotal evidence to shed light on how certificate schemes operate in practice, providing insight into how government officials (including judges and probation officers), employers and convicted individuals interact with the laws (or fail to) in the real world. The increasing popularity of such well-intentioned laws represents an encouraging shift in legislative attitudes about second chances; but, as the articles make clear, they are only as good as their real-world application, which is more limited and less effective than many suppose.

The two articles are abstracted and linked below.  Also linked are other CCRC posts discussing judicial certificates of relief.

Heather Garretson, Legislating Forgiveness: A Study of Post-Conviction Certificates as Policy to Address the Employment Consequences of a Conviction, __ B.U. Pub. Int. L.J. __ (forthcoming, 2016):

Mass incarceration in America is creating an employment paradox that is the result of three facts: an estimated 65 million Americans have a criminal record, a criminal record significantly impairs job opportunities, and a job is a critical component of living a crime-free life. This paradox is perpetuated by thousands of legal and administrative barriers to employment and by employers’ unwillingness to hire someone with a criminal record.

States have recently started addressing the employment paradox with legislation. This legislation authorizes an administrative relief mechanism – often a certificate of some kind – that is intended to lift employment barriers and encourage employers to consider applicants with a criminal record. Such legislation is on the rise: of the ten states that have certificate legislation, eight passed such legislation in the last five years. This passage comes without an understanding of the impact of certificates. The accessibility and relevance of certificates to employment has – until now – been assumed, but not examined.

New York State has the oldest and most robust certificate system, and is a model for much of the recent certificate legislation. This paper contains the first comprehensive research on New York’s certificates. The research asks whether New York’s certificates are accessible and relevant to employment. It combines statutory analysis with qualitative research. It is a study of how certificate legislation is supposed to work – and how it actually does. It examines a statutory scheme that is recently replicated but empirically empty. Through interviews with judges, people with certificates or those eligible but without one, attorneys, current and former probation officials, service providers, and advocates, this paper provides insights into the use of certificates, their challenges, and examines how legislating more of the same can effectively address the employment paradox.

Alec Ewald, Rights Restoration and the Entanglement of US Criminal and Civil Law: A Study of New York’s “Certificates of Relief,” Law & Soc. Inquiry, Winter 2016, at 5:

Despite burgeoning interest in prisoner re-entry and the “collateral consequences” of criminal convictions, we know little about the practical operation of policies governing the rights and privileges of people with criminal convictions. This study examines New York’s Certificates of Relief from Civil Disabilities to explore the workings of the US carceral state at the intersection of criminal and civil law. These certificates remove some legal restrictions accompanying convictions, particularly licensure barriers, and are easier to achieve than pardons; other states have used New York’s policy as a model. Interviews with judges and probation officers reveal deep variations in how they understand and award certificates. In some cases, differences stem from informal local agreements, particularly concerning firearms in rural communities; in others, from discretionary judgments in a context of legal ambiguity. These practices demonstrate how specific legal, organizational, and cultural factors contribute to complexity and variation in the US carceral state.

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