“A Federal Judge’s New Model for Forgiveness”

New York Times

Jane Doe had asked the judge to expunge her conviction from the record. “I just feel intimidated when I see that question,” she told the judge, referring to the standard inquiry into a job applicant’s criminal history. “If you put ‘yes’ on there, that’s it. You are not getting that job.”

But Judge Gleeson declined her request, saying expungement was reserved for “unusual or extreme” cases. Instead, he opted for forgiveness over forgetting, as he put it. While the certificate has no legal effect, when Jane Doe shows it to a prospective employer or landlord, it should, the judge wrote, send “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.”

Jane Doe earned the certificate, Judge Gleeson wrote, in part because she has never been convicted of another crime. It also mattered to him that at the time of the crime, she was raising two children alone on less than $15,000 a year. She received no money from the scheme, and after her conviction she was evicted from her apartment and had her nursing license suspended.

“If we want formerly incarcerated people to become upstanding citizens, we should not litter their paths to re-entry with stumbling blocks,” he wrote.

The struggle to find stable, secure employment is one of the most common and damaging effects of a criminal record. To address this problem, more than 100 cities and counties have enacted so-called ban-the-box laws, which prohibit employers from asking about an applicant’s criminal record until later in the hiring process. Last November, President Obama ordered federal agencies to follow suit.

Judge Gleeson said the federal system needs to catch up with the states. He pointed to several states, including New York, that offer strong relief, like certificates that remove automatic penalties attached to a conviction, like the loss of the right to vote. But states have no power to restore some very important privileges, like the ability to serve in the military or on a jury, or full access to government benefits.

Over more than two decades on the bench, Judge Gleeson has often challenged Congress, the White House and other judges to think more sensibly about harsh criminal laws. His latest effort, unfortunately, was his last: Two days after giving Jane Doe her certificate, Judge Gleeson retired from the bench.