Category Archives: Reentry

Underground Scholars at UC Santa Cruz

The Underground Scholars Initiative (USI), a peer support system for previously incarcerated and system impacted students, has come UC Santa Cruz, with a new chapter that began operations this past fall. Beginning with a single program at UC Berkeley in 2013, the program now operates at seven UC campuses, providing services such as counseling support, financial literacy, internship and job opportunities, and a community of individuals from diverse backgrounds that members can rely on before and after graduation. 

Although higher education is one of the best predictors of successful reentry, without the support and resources available through programs like USI, formerly incarcerated individuals are eight times less likely to complete college than their peers according to the Prison Policy Initiative. The Rising Scholars Program in the community college system, Project Rebound in the Cal States, and USI chapters in the UC system all work to improve those numbers by encouraging enrollment and retention through resources and support.

As Daniel Davis, a member of the UCSC USI community puts it: “We find that people that have been impacted by incarceration often don’t fit in with the crowd that is typically at a world-class university. A sense of belonging is something that has to be cultivated through resources, community, and general acceptance.”

“Having [an] exposure to a diversity of people and things really helps people to put in perspective and take control over their lives,” said core leadership team member and fourth-year UCSC transfer student Missy Hart. “[We encourage them to] take control over their lives, their stories, and help them in a way that’s going to be positive for themselves and everyone else around them.”

Funding for the USI chapter at UCSC comes from the Renaissance Scholars Program, Services for Transfer and Re-entry Students (STARS) – both student support offices at UCSC – and from individual donors and grants, including from the original UC Berkeley chapter. A large part of the funding went to hiring a director, Joshua Solis, a recent UCSC graduate.

“It was through the overwhelming support of STARS and Renaissance Scholars that allowed for Underground Scholars at UCSC to emerge as a support program for formerly incarcerated and system impacted students,” Solis said. “The funding that was allocated to Underground Scholars emphasizes their commitment in building capacity for supporting all of our students at STARS.

The UCSC Underground Scholars are hosting a virtual introductory event on Wednesday, February 24:

CSIBA

The newly created California System-Involved Bar Association – CSIBA – has as its mission to increase access to legal education and State Bar of California licensure for people with prior criminal justice system involvement. The brainchild of Frankie Guzman and James Binnall, themselves attorneys with histories of criminal justice system involvement, CSIBA hopes to harness the energy and commitment of others similarly situated to provide education, mentoring, and advocacy to achieve that mission. Here is the project vision:

“The California System Involved Bar Association is above all else – a community. Our members are invested in the successes of those who come after us, as we understand that to effectuate real, lasting change, we must continually give back to our population. When one achieves their goals, we all benefit. 

One of the primary purposes of CSIBA is to offer our community a sense of hope. Often, our population is discouraged from pursuing a career in law because “people like us can’t do that” or “are not allowed to do that.” We are here to dispel those myths. Our members, all formerly incarcerated or system involved, are practicing attorneys specializing in a variety of areas of law and working in a host of different fields. For example, our members include licensed attorneys who are professors, policy advocates, and non-profit leaders.

Though hope is a necessary first step, we understand that without resources, hope is of little value. Along those lines, we have built a statewide network of members to help formerly incarcerated and system involved individuals to achieve their dream of becoming a licensed California attorney. From admission to law school through licensure, members are available to share their stories, offer encouragement, and strategize next steps. In short, we will walk with you on your path to becoming an attorney.

Too often our population is viewed as having an abundance of deficits.  Many talk about formerly incarcerated and system involved people as having needs and posing risks.  It is our belief that such an approach overlooks the assets, strengths, and attributes that we have as a population.  All of us have navigated the criminal justice system – and for some of us that included incarceration.  Still, we have come out on the other side wiser and stronger.  This demonstrates a type of resilience and character that we believe translates into being a successful attorney. This group is about that belief – the belief that we make good, ethical lawyers.

Thank you for visiting our site. We appreciate your interest and if you are formerly incarcerated or system involved, please reach out, join a meeting, and start to work toward your dream of entering the legal profession. If you are simply interested in our organization, we welcome your help. We collaborate with a vast array of stakeholders, because we know the difficulties our population faces and the necessary assistance we all need.

– James M. Binnall & Frankie Guzman
CSIBA Co-Founders & Co-Executive Directors”

Paul Seeman is a member of the CSIBA E-Board.

Voter Suppression On Trial – Live!

In 2018 the Florida electorate approved Amendment 4 to the Florida constitution, restoring voting rights to citizens with felony criminal records. A few months later, the Republican-led Florida Senate drew up a payments bill, requiring those citizens to settle all financial obligations before they could register to vote. Governor DeSantis signed the bill into law in June 2019, and shortly thereafter a coalition of Floridians and voting rights organizations sued Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, arguing that a law that requires payment of all legal fines, fees and restitution before a citizen can register to vote amounts to an illegal poll tax. That case has gone to trial today, Monday April 27, 2020, in the Northern Districtsof Florida.

The case sits squarely at the intersection of the civil rights movement for formerly incarcerated people, the criminal justice reform movement, and the acrimonious partisan battle over voter suppression issues. Because of COVID-19 and the resulting shutdown of court systems, the trial is being held in a virtual digital courtroom, and as a result anyone can listen in on the live audio feed:

Call-in (571) 353-2300

Access code 034872985

 

EXPUNGEMENT OF CRIMINAL CONVICTIONS: AN EMPIRICAL STUDY

That is the title of a first-of-its-kind empirical study of the effects of state laws limiting public access to criminal records – commonly known as “expungement.” It is worth quoting the abstract in its entirety:

 “Laws permitting the expungement of criminal convictions are a key component of modern criminal justice reform efforts and have been the subject of a recent upsurge of legislative activity. This debate has been almost entirely devoid of evidence about the laws’ effects, in part because the necessary data (such as sealed records themselves) have been unavailable. We were able to obtain access to deidentified data that overcomes that problem, and we use it to carry out a comprehensive statewide study of expungement recipients and comparable non-recipients. We offer three key sets of empirical findings. First, among those legally eligible for expungement, just 6.5% obtain it within five years of eligibility. Drawing on patterns in our data as well as interviews with expungement lawyers, we point to reasons for this serious “uptake gap.” Second, those who do obtain expungement have extremely low subsequent crime rates, comparing favorably to the general population—a finding that defuses a common public-safety objection to expungement laws. Third, those who obtain expungement experience a sharp upturn in their wage and employment trajectories; on average, within two years, wages go up by 25% versus the pre-expungement trajectory, an effect mostly driven by unemployed people finding jobs and very minimally employed people finding steadier or higher-paying work.”

The paper is available here.

The Innocent Defendant’s Dilemma

In the classic game-theory “Prisoner’s Dilemma,” the puzzle is that two suspects questioned separately may end up getting harsher punishment when they both cooperate with law enforcement and implicate their accomplice than if they each stay silent – even though it appears they will get more lenient treatment if they cooperate.

The normal game is described in detail in Wikipedia:

Prisoner B


Prisoner A

Prisoner B stays silent
(cooperates)
Prisoner B betrays
(defects)
Prisoner A stays silent
(cooperates)
Each serves 1 year Prisoner A: 3 years
Prisoner B: goes free
Prisoner A betrays
(defects)
Prisoner A: goes free
Prisoner B: 3 years
Each serves 2 years

A real life version of this is the innocent defendant’s dilemma – a defendant who pleads guilty or no contest in return for a more lenient sentence, while maintaining their innocence – an “Alford” plea – may end up facing harsher treatment later on in the process than a defendant who is factually guilty and is therefore able to truthfully express remorse in return for more favorable outcomes in probation, parole, or other collateral consequence contexts.

We know for a fact from the evolution of DNA testing and the popular scope of “Innocence Project” investigations that innocent defendants do plead guilty. Those cases are almost always serious felonies, so it is hard to know the real extent of the problem or practice in the criminal justice system as a whole, but in a 2013 study published in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology – “The Innocent Defendant’s Dilemma: An Innovative Empirical Study of Plea Bargaining’s Innocence Problem”, (Volume 103, Issue 1) a controlled experiment found that more than 50% of a sample of college students were willing to falsely admit guilt for a perceived benefit.

That finding makes an interesting bookend to a paper in the Missouri Law Review – “Plea Best Not Taken: Why Criminal Defendants Should Avoid the Alford Plea” (68 Missouri Law Review 1 (2003)) discussing how the legal system assumes and allows innocent defendants to plead guilty – an “Alford” plea – or nolo contendere, but then assumes guilt for post-sentencing, rehabilitation, and other collateral consequence purposes. As the authors of that article point out, because of the lack of “remorse” that goes with a continuing claim of innocence, those defendants may be treated more harshly after the Alford or nolo plea than others who are in fact  guilty of criminal conduct and are able to express remorse and regret in return for favorable treatment in probation, parole, or other collateral consequence contexts:

“Availing oneself of an Alford plea may result in a stiffer sentence than that imposed on someone who merely pleads guilty…Courts have consistently upheld sentence aggravation for defendants who have pled guilty, but maintained their innocence based on their “lack of remorse.” In addition, courts have revoked defendants’ probation because after utilizing the Alford plea and asserting their innocence, they fail to admit their offense as part of a probation-mandated counseling program. Finally, courts have upheld the denial of parole to defendants who have utilized the Alford plea, professed their innocence, and then failed to admit their guilt while in prison.”

Just one more small example of how the over-criminalization and over-charging that drive our plea-bargain based system of criminal adjudication leads to systemic injustice and hypocrisy.

Rights Restoration in Nevada

Nevada is one of 12 states that restrict voting rights even after a person has served his or her prison sentence and is no longer on probation or parole. Based on the most recent estimates Nevada’s law disenfranchises over 89,000 people: 4% of the entire state-wide voting-age population but 11.76% of the adult black voting-age population. More than half of disenfranchised African Americans are post-sentence, meaning they can petition a court to have their rights restored. Nevada also has a relatively complicated system for restoration of voting rights for people with criminal records that depends in part on the type of record – see the description at the end of this blog. There is a great new project and resource for determining if someone is eligible to have their franchise rights restored at Restore Your Vote, a project of the Campaign Legal Center. On the site you can download a Toolkit that walks people through the eligibility issues and the rights restoration process.

Here is the actual description of eligibility rules from the website of the Clark County Registrar:

Conditions

IF you were convicted in Nevada on or after July 1, 2003 of

A category A or B felony that resulted in substantial bodily harm to the victim, or
Two or more felonies, unless the convictions arose out of the same act.

You may petition the court of competent jurisdiction for an order granting the restoration of your civil rights.

IF you were convicted in Nevada of a felony other than a category A or B felony as described above, and have been:

Honorably discharged from probation, or
Honorably discharged from parole, or
Released from prison.

You have been restored the following civil rights:

The right to vote; and
The right to serve as a juror in a civil action.
Four years after the date of honorable discharge from parole or probation, pardon, or release from prison, the right to hold office.
Six years after the date of honorable discharge from parole or probation, pardon, or release from prison, the right to serve as a juror in a criminal action.

IF you received an unconditional pardon

You are restored all civil rights and are relieved of all disabilities incurred upon conviction.

IF you were convicted of a felony in a federal court or convicted in another state

Call the Clark County Election Department at (702) 455-0075 or (702) 455-8683 for direction.

IF you were federally convicted in the US District Court of Nevada  

AND the Election Department advises you must provide:

An Order Terminating Probation or
A signed letter from the District Court where you were supervised

AND you do not have that documentation
Call the main telephone of the U.S. District Probation and Parole Department at (702) 527-7300.

Historic Bail Reform in California

Governor Jerry Brown today signed into law SB 10, the groundbreaking bail reform legislation that establishes a new system for determining a defendant’s custody status while they await trial based on an assessment of risk to public safety and probability of missing a court date rather than their ability to pay cash bail.

“Today, California reforms its bail system so that rich and poor alike are treated fairly,” said Governor Brown.

Governor Brown signs SB 10. Left to right: Assembly Speaker Rendon, Senate President pro Tempore Atkins, Governor Brown (seated), Senator Hertzberg, Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye and Assemblymember Bonta.

This action delivers on the commitment made last August by Governor Brown, California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye and the bill’s authors – Senator Robert Hertzberg (D-Los Angeles) and Assemblymember Rob Bonta (D-Alameda) – to work together on long-needed reforms in the second year of the two-year legislative session.

“This is a transformative day for our justice system. Our old system of money bail was outdated, unsafe, and unfair. It took a three-branch solution with Governor Brown, the Legislature led by Senator Hertzberg and Assemblymember Bonta, and the Judicial Council’s Administrative Director Martin Hoshino working with judges in my Pretrial Detention Reform Work Group to bring about a fair and just solution for all Californians,” said Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye.

The new law will take effect on October 1, 2019.

Sixth Amendment, Typewriters, Carbon Paper….

Like typewriters, carbon paper, and other relics of the analog age, the Sixth Amendment right to trivial by jury has become a historical curiosity. According to a recent study published by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, “The Trial Penalty: The Sixth Amendment Right To Trial on the Verge of Extinction and How To Save It“, over the last fifty years, trial by jury has declined at an ever-increasing rate to the point that they now occur in less than 3% of state and federal criminal cases:

“Trial by jury has been replaced by a “system of  guilty pleas, which diminishes, to the point of obscurity, the role that the Framers envisioned for jury trials as the primary protection for individual liberties and the principal mechanism for public participation in the criminal justice system.”

The reason for this fundamental change in the criminal justice system is straightforward: individuals who choose to exercise their Sixth Amendment right to trial face exponentially higher sentences if they invoke the right to trial and lose. Faced with this choice, individuals almost uniformly surrender the right to trial rather than insist on proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Defense lawyers spend most of their time negotiating guilty pleas rather than ensuring that police and the government respect the boundaries of the law including the proof beyond a reasonable doubt standard, and judges dedicate their time to administering plea allocutions rather than evaluating the constitutional and legal aspects of the government’s case and police conduct. Equally important, the public rarely exercises the oversight function envisioned by the Framers and inherent in jury service.

Perhaps the most troubling effect of this trend is evidenced by “exoneration” research. In a study of 354 individuals exonerated by DNA analysis, 11% had pled guilty to crimes they did not commit, and the National Registry of Exonerations has identified 359 exonerees who pled guilty. Simply put, the extraordinary pressure defendants face to plead guilty can even cause innocent people to plead guilty to crimes they know they did not commit.

Voting in Jail Pt. 2

And in Los Angeles, the ACLU has partnered with LARRP, the Los Angeles Regional Reentry Partnership, on an “Unlock the Vote”  campaign to reduce barriers to registration and voting for justice-involved and justice-impacted folks in Los Angeles County as well as Orange County. The project volunteers go inside the LA and Orange County jails to to educate and register eligible voters, both the prisoners and the family and friends who are visiting, and reach out through reentry fairs and other community events to educate and register people who are returning citizens or otherwise criminal justice system-impacted. If you are an LA County resident and would like to get involved, here is the information to volunteer.

Voting in Jail: IL and CA News

In Illinois, the  Governor has on his desk and is expected to sign the recently passed HB 4469, which requires every jail in the state to provide voter education and make in-person or absentee voting available to all eligible incarcerated voters. Currently only eight counties in the state have any voting process for people in pretrial detention. “There is confusion around how election code actually applies to the jail,” says Jen Dean, who runs Cook County Jail Votes, the group that helps facilitate registration and voting in the largest jail in the country. “[This bill] creates a system of uniformity across the state to make sure there are systems in place so that everybody has access to the ballot.”

Meanwhile, in California, a bill to increase voter education in jails recently cleared the Senate Public Safety Committee. Assembly Bill 3115 would require jails to partner with at least one organization to provide “both written and verbal information about voting rights upon release from jail, providing affidavits of registration to eligible voters, assisting eligible voters with the completion of the affidavits of registration, and assisting eligible voters in returning the completed voter registration cards to the county elections official.”