Please read this excellent article from the New Yorker about the Underground Scholars Initiative at Cal Berkeley, a group formed by formerly incarcerated undergraduates at Cal to provide mentoring, support, and advocacy – and eventually, create a prison-to-school pipeline. About the experience:
“When Czifra first got to Berkeley, he went looking for his people, by which he meant ones who had grown up poor, but they were hard to find. He told an adviser he wanted to work with the incarcerated, particularly children—he believed that imprisoning a child for any kind of crime was counterproductive and wrong. The adviser suggested that he volunteer, but the sign-up form mentioned background checks, and he never went back.
He found big classes hard to take. For a long time after he left prison, he’d had a raw, aggressive energy about him that scared people. He still had to remind himself when he entered a new situation that nobody was going to attack him; he didn’t have to be constantly on his guard. When he walked into a crowded classroom, he felt a rush of paranoia: he felt that everyone was looking at him, and that if they knew what he’d done and where he’d been he would not be welcome. And, in fact, he was not always welcome. He went to see a professor early on to ask why he was getting B’s. “The professor made some kind of comment like he knew I was a gang banger who was trying to change my life,” he says. “He was, like, I got your number—not in an accusatory way, but not in a warm, Kumbaya way, either. He said, If you get an A-plus, I’ll write you a letter of recommendation, if you get an A, you’re grad-student material, and if you get A-minus or below, forget it.”
Taking the lead in application of California’s Proposition 64, which legalizes, among other things, the possession and purchase of up to an ounce of marijuana and allows individuals to grow up to six plants for personal use, San Francisco’s DA George Gascon has ordered the review, recall, dismissal, and sealing of more than 3,000 marijuana-realted misdemeanors that were sentenced prior to Proposition 64’s passage. The law anticipated that individuals could petition the court to have their own records cleared, but the process is complicated and in SF only 23 petitions were filed in the first year. The preemptive action by the DA is, at this point, unique in California.
“So instead of waiting for the community to take action, we’re taking action for the community,” Gascón said.
The move will clear people’s records of crimes that can be barriers to employment and housing.
ProPublica reports that the Nevada Board of Pardons Commissioners has pardoned Fred Steese, 26 years (21 in prison) after his conviction on a murder charge in which the prosecutors had proof of his alibi hidden in their files, five years after an Order of Actual Innocence from a district court, and five years after the same Clark County prosecutor’s office required an Alford plea from Steese as a prerequisite for release after the order.
Steese was convicted in 1995 and sentenced to two life sentences for the murder of Gerard Soules, a Las Vegas performer with a costumed poodle act at the Circus Circus casino. At the time of Soules’ death, Steese was several states away. But prosecutors didn’t reveal that they had evidence that Steese was telling the truth, instead telling jurors that Steese had fabricated his alibi with the help of his look-alike brother. During the trial, the prosecutors also concealed the nature of several photo lineups pointing to Steese’s innocence and accused the defense of manufacturing evidence.
The men who prosecuted him, Bill Kephart and Doug Herndon, are now district court judges in Las Vegas.
Read the whole sordid story here.
The Massachusetts Senate Friday passed an historic set of criminal justice reforms, including repeal of mandatory-minimum sentences for several drug crimes, legalization of sex between young teens close in age, and raising the age of criminal responsibility to 19, the highest in the nation. Reforms still require approval by the House of Representatives, and there is still a great deal of opposition – primarily from law enforcement officials – who hope the House of Representatives proposes a more prosecutor-friendly bill.
Massachusetts has already been a leader in combating over-criminalization and mass incarceration. In 2015, Massachusetts had the second-lowest imprisonment rate, with 179 sentenced prisoners for every 100,000 people, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. Nationally, 458 prisoners were sentenced to more than one year in state or federal prison per 100,000 US residents.
With the opioid crisis as a back-drop, the legislation also included a few tougher provisions, including heavier penalties for crimes such as trafficking fentanyl.
Restoration of voting rights has been an issue in the governor’s race in Virginia, one of four states where a person loses the franchise entirely after they are convicted of a felony-level offense. Current governor Terry McAuliffe tried to use his pardon power to restore the rights of 200,000 Virginians in one blow. Republican lawmakers successfully challenged the en masse order in court, so the governor began signing the orders individually, totaling more than 168,000 to date. Republican candidate Ed Gillespie has started running TV ads challenging this policy. Of note is that while Gillespie challenges the “automatic” restoration of rights, he appears to endorse at least a process for restoration:
“Virginians who have paid their debt to society and are living an honest life should have their rights restored. But Ralph Northam’s policy of automatic restoration of rights for unrepentant, unreformed, violent criminals is wrong.”
Meanwhile, in New Jersey, the issue of voting rights restoration is also in the public eye, witness this recent editorial in the New Jersey Star-Ledger: “Why N.J. must restore voting rights to those in prison, parole, probation”
The Collateral Consequences Resource Center has published two new guides to collateral consequence issues in criminal justice: a 50-state overview of the subject, “Forgiving and Forgetting in American Justice – A 50 State Guide To Expungement and Restoration of Rights”; and a California specific guide, “California Compilation of Collateral Consequences”. The California guide is a useful tool for anyone involved in the criminal justice system, a searchable online database of the restrictions and disqualifications imposed by California statutes and regulations because of an individual’s criminal record.
CCRC has previously published similar guides on federal laws and rules, and of two other state systems (Wisconsin and Vermont), all built on the National Inventory of the Collateral Consequences of Conviction (NICCC), originally compiled by the ABA and now maintained by the Council of State Governments. The CCRC databases are streamlined and reorganized to allow more precise searches of the specific activities and rights affected by various consequences and make it possible to explore the relationship between consequences and their implementing regulations. They also add a set of searchable “Keywords” that allow users to accurately zero in on areas of interest with much more precision than previous versions.
That is the title of a new article in “Demography” magazine from the Population Association of America and lead author
“The steep rise in U.S. criminal punishment in recent decades has spurred scholarship on the collateral consequences of imprisonment for individuals, families, and communities. Several excellent studies have estimated the number of people who have been incarcerated and the collateral consequences they face, but far less is known about the size and scope of the total U.S. population with felony convictions beyond prison walls, including those who serve their sentences on probation or in jail. This article develops state-level estimates based on demographic life tables and extends previous national estimates of the number of people with felony convictions to 2010. We estimate that 3 % of the total U.S. adult population and 15 % of the African American adult male population has ever been to prison; people with felony convictions account for 8 % of all adults and 33 % of the African American adult male population. We discuss the far-reaching consequences of the spatial concentration and immense growth of these groups since 1980.”
As The Crime Report notes in their own synopsis of the article, the critical figure is the staggering percentages of people with felony convictions – almost 1 in 10 people in the US has a felony record – regardless of whether they have been to prison or not: “… as criminal justice reform targets mass incarceration… ‘many of the collateral consequences of punishment—most notably for the labor market, housing, and access to public supports—flow not from incarceration experiences but from the application of a widely known and publicly disseminated felony label.'”
The California legislature has approved a bill that would dramatically expand protections for people with a criminal record under the state’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). AB 1008 provides that non-conviction records may not be considered at all in any employment decision by a covered employer (one with more than five employees), and makes violation of this an unfair employment practice under FEHA. Non-conviction records include records of convictions that have been dismissed pursuant to California’s set-aside law, and convictions that have been sealed or expunged.
The new law makes it an unfair employment practice to ask about an applicant’s conviction record before a conditional offer of employment, and requires an employer who intends to deny employment solely or in part because of the applicant’s conviction history to make an individualized assessment of whether this has “a direct and adverse relationship with the specific duties of the job.” In making that individualized assessment, the employer must take into account (i) The nature and gravity of the offense or conduct; (ii) The time that has passed since the offense or conduct and completion of the sentence; and (iii)The nature of the job held or sought.
The bill still has to be signed by Governor Brown, but when that happens California will become the fourth state in the country, after New York, Wisconsin, and Hawaii, to extend the full protections of its fair employment law to individuals with a criminal record.
Have a criminal record? Need a job? You are not alone – according to 70millionjobs.com, there are 70 million Americans in the same situation. The website, created by a former Wall Street trader incarcerated for securities fraud, acts as a clearing house for job applicants and employers transparent about criminal record pasts. The principles of the organization:
• That having served a sentence, a person should be able to get on with his or her life.
• That past mistakes should not define life in the future.
• That all people have a right to a good job, decent housing, competent medical care and other human needs.
• That we will run our business transparently, with integrity and compassion.
• That the formerly incarcerated deserve the right to vote.
• That all folks that have done time are our brothers and sisters and that we’re stronger when we work together.
Alabama passed a law in May clarifying which felonies constituted “moral turpitude,” potentially enfranchising thousands of citizens, but Secretary of State John Merrill had said that his office wouldn’t take any action to make sure that people affected by the law actually know about it. The Campaign Legal Center, which is representing 10 plaintiffs suing the state over the moral turpitude law, has now asked the court to require Merrill to take meaningful measures to advertise the changes to the law, such as updating his website, election forms or advising local voter registrars. With a voter registration deadline for a special election for U.S. Senate approaching at the end of July, the Center said Merrill must act soon to educate voters.
Alabama had blocked people convicted of a crime of “moral turpitude” from voting since 1901 but never explicitly defined what constituted an offense of moral turpitude, although the law was limited to felonies in the 1990s. The ambiguity gave local election officials broad discretion to deny people the right to vote, which means some eligible voters may have been told in the past that they couldn’t vote and may continue to think they can’t.
“The state is responsible for correcting the confusion that has wrongly disenfranchised voters for decades. In order for HB 282 to have any meaningful effect, Alabama must notify voters about their right and ensure they are able to successfully cast a ballot going forward,” Danielle Lang, a lawyer at Campaign Legal Center, said in a statement. In addition to promoting the changes in eligibility, the Center has asked the court to require the state to automatically reinstate and notify voters who were disqualified to vote in the last two years but are now eligible. It also requests that the state produce a comprehensive list of all individuals who had been blocked from voting because of a conviction over the last two years and implement a public education plan targeted at people with convictions.