Judge Gleeson issues a “federal certificate of rehabilitation”

In his final week on the bench, in an opinion that may in time prove among his most influential, U.S. District Judge John Gleeson issued a “certificate of rehabilitation” to a woman he had sentenced 13 years before.  See Jane Doe v. United States, No. 15-MC-1174 (E.D.N.Y., March 7, 2016) (Jane Doe II).  The opinion breaks new ground in holding that federal courts have authority to mitigate the adverse effects of a criminal record short of complete expungement.  Along the way, it confirms that a district court may use its inherent equitable powers to expunge convictions in “extreme circumstances,” an issue now on appeal to the Second Circuit in Judge Gleeson’s earlier expungement case.  (Jane Doe I has been calendared for argument on April 7.)  The opinion also finds a role for federal probation to play, including under New York State’s “robust” certificate system, which lifts mandatory state law bars to employment and other opportunities.  It does all of this in a manner that should make it hard for the government to appeal, since “this court-issued relief aligns with efforts the Justice Department, the President, and Congress are already undertaking to help people in Doe’s position shed the burden imposed by a record of conviction and move forward with their lives.”    

Joe Palazzolo at the Wall Street Journal blog noted that  

More than a dozen states and the District of Columbia issue certificates to certain ex-offenders who have shown their days of crime are behind them, usually by remaining offense-free for a long stretch. . . . . 

There is no equivalent federal certificate. So Judge Gleeson invented his own.

Judge Gleeson summarized his opinion as follows:

I conclude that while Doe has struggled considerably as a result of her conviction, her situation does not amount to the “extreme circumstances” that merit expungement.  That said, I had no intention to sentence her to the unending hardship she has endured in the job market. I have reviewed her case in painstaking detail, and I can certify that Doe has been rehabilitated. Her conviction makes her no different than any other nursing applicant. In the 12 years since she reentered society after serving her prison sentence, she has not been convicted of any other wrongdoing. She has worked diligently to obtain stable employment, albeit with only intermittent success. Accordingly, I am issuing Doe a federal certificate of rehabilitation.


Judge Gleeson sees a constitutional dimension to the collateral consequences of conviction, and a corresponding obligation of sentencing courts to relieve them:

There is no longer a need to deprive Doe of her liberty interests in the way collateral consequences imposed by the law have been doing. As her sentencing judge, I owe it not only to Doe, but to her family and community, to do my part to lift any remaining hardship on her.

His opinion compares the “forgetting” model, exemplified by expungement, with the “forgiveness” model, which “acknowledges the conviction but uses a certificate of rehabilitation or a pardon to symbolize society’s forgiveness of the underlying offense conduct.”  It points out that “it is not clear to me that expungement would significantly help Doe, as her conviction will still appear on her nursing license and in private criminal record databases.”

The forgiveness model, which preserves the public record of a conviction, is gaining favor in the reentry community for both functional and philosophical reasons. . . . Where expungement relief is unavailable or otherwise unhelpful, I believe a certificate of rehabilitation can significantly alleviate the collateral effects of a criminal record by emitting a powerful signal that the same system that found a person deserving of punishment has now found that individual fit to fully rejoin the community.

Judge Gleeson reviews the certificate schemes enacted by many states, including the one adopted in Illinois through the efforts of then-State Senator Obama, and concludes that “t]he federal system has much to gain from adopting a certification system similar to those in certain states.”  If authorized by law, a federal certificate would not only evidence rehabilitation, it could also lift mandatory collateral sanctions.

The opinion describes the key role a sentencing court can play in encouraging prospective employers and others to give a person with a criminal record a second chance:

Most prospective employers do not have the time or resources to gain a comprehensive understanding of who Doe is, and then to figure out what weight, if any, her conviction should play in the hiring process. So I have done that for them. I have reviewed each page of Doe’s trial transcript, presentence report, probation reports, deposition transcript, and other documents she and the government provided to me for a holistic view of her character and competency today. I find that there is no relationship between Doe’s conviction and her fitness to be a nurse. See N.Y. Correct. Law § 752 (prohibiting the denial of employment unless there is a “direct relationship” to the offense of conviction or “the employment would involve an unreasonable risk to property or to the safety or welfare of specific individuals or the general public”); N.Y. Exec. Law § 296(15) (making unlawful the denial of employment due to a finding of moral character based on a criminal conviction). Any legitimate impact that her fraudulent actions more than 15 years ago may have had on her suitability for employment no longer exists. Jane Doe is rehabilitated.

Appended to the opinion is an actual certificate, presumably designed in Judge Gleeson’s chambers, which embodies the court’s recommendation “that she be welcomed to participate in society in the ways the rest of us do.”  Moreover, “[i]f her attorney decides to make an application for a pardon from the President, I believe the certificate will help her make a strong case.”  If other federal courts accept Judge Gleeson’s invitation to engage in post-sentence record-mitigation efforts, it could be as significant for collateral consequences in federal cases as Booker was for federal sentencing. 

Margaret Love

Margaret Love is CCRC's Executive Director. A former U.S. Pardon Attorney, she represents applicants for executive clemency in her private practice in Washington, D.C.. She is lead co-author of Collateral Consequences of Criminal Conviction: Law, Policy, and Practice (4th ed. 2021), and served as an advisor to the ALI Model Penal Code: Sentencing.

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