Certificates of Rehabilitation

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By Lizzy Gilbert. 

Have you heard this statistic yet? One out of every three Americans has a criminal record.[1] As the Center for American Progress brilliantly noted in a 2014 report:

“Today, a criminal record serves as both a direct cause and consequence of poverty. It is a cause because having a criminal record can present obstacles to employment, housing, public assistance, education, family reunification, and more; convictions can result in monetary debts as well. It is a consequence due to the growing criminalization of poverty and homelessness. One recent study finds that our nation’s poverty rate would have dropped by 20 percent between 1980 and 2004 if not for mass incarceration and the subsequent criminal records that haunt people for years after they have paid their debt to society. Failure to address this link as part of a larger anti-poverty agenda risks missing a major piece of the puzzle.”[2]

As our country grapples with the implications of hypercriminalization, policymakers are starting to discuss ways they can ameliorate some of the 44,000 documented barriers and roadblocks that decades of their shortsighted “tough on crime” legislation have inflicted on us. Expungement, or the official sealing of a criminal record, is one option. Another, lesser known path, is a legal certification of rehabilitation. That’s what I’m here to discuss today.

Certificates of Rehabilitation (CORs), sometimes called Certificates of Good Standing or Employability, are currently offered in 14 states and Washington, D.C.[3] As is the case with expungement, the eligibility, application and value of CORs varies from state to state, but they are generally viewed as a legal stamp of approval from a judge or parole board, verifying that the grantee has proven themselves rehabilitated in the eyes of the law. CORs also generally give recipients a respite from automatic exclusion from certain licenses and professions.

In an effort to learn more about the various state certificate programs, we spent some time studying the California COR system and comparing it to the 13 other states that offer them.* As expected, we found great variety in how different states have chosen to write and implement their statutes. In some states, like Connecticut, individuals are eligible to apply for a COR as soon as they’re released from prison or jail. In others, people have to wait 10 years after release from any kind of supervision before they can apply. Some judicial relief programs look great on paper, but hold little value in practice. For example, Nevada’s Certificate of Good Standing appears promising: it removes a legal disability, or collateral consequence, that is inflicted as a result of a conviction (e.g. a ban from acquiring a particular license); it furnishes evidence of good moral character; and it provide official government recognition that the grantee is “rehabilitated.” Sounds great, right? Unfortunately, Nevada hasn’t issued a single Certificate of Good Standing in years.[4]

California’s COR program was written into law in 1943, but is also exceptionally underutilized. The application process, comparatively, is cumbersome, and the wait period is a minimum of 5 years after release from supervision (depending on conviction). But there are also some favorable components to California’s law: applicants are entitled to be represented by a public defender; if granted, it can relieve the individual from having to register as a sex offender; and it mandates that professional or business licensing cannot be denied solely based on conviction (without the COR, absolute denial is legal and ubiquitous).

Why is this information pertinent to us today? Because Root & Rebound, in partnership with Project Rebound at SFSU, is embarking on a dual public education/direct service campaign to expand the use, impact and value of Certificates of Rehabilitation in California. Our goal with this project is twofold: 1) to directly aid and educate those who are eligible to apply for CORs (as well as their advocates and attorneys) about the application process, the benefits of applying, and their right to be informed; and 2) to educate the public, including judges, attorneys, employers, licensing boards, and professionals, about the existence of CORs, their value, and their impact.

With this campaign, we hope to drastically increase the number of Californians who possess a COR, thus decreasing the number of our community members who are denied a license, a job, or an apartment based on their criminal conviction. We also want to ensure that their value is well understood by potential employers, landlords, and licensing boards; we want them to know that a COR is meaningful, that certificate holders have proven themselves rehabilitated in the eyes of the law—the same eyes that originally convicted them.

In the reentry space, we’re continually looking for a way to reduce the barriers people with criminal records encounter. California’s Certificate of Rehabilitation program is not perfect by any means, but we believe that it has the potential to transform peoples’ lives. Please stay tuned as we move forward with this exciting campaign!

*To share our findings from web research of the national landscape, we have shared the link to the table here and below (Table 1). This matrix is a quantitative evaluation of the 14 states that currently offer judicial certificate programs as relief mechanisms for convictions and criminal records.

Here is description of the measures used for evaluation:

  • Ease refers to the level of difficulty of the certificate application process, where 1= very difficult and 10= extremely easy, or automatic.
  • Wait period refers to the amount of time an individual must wait post-release (or post-sentence, in some states) before eligibility for the certificate begins, where 1= a long wait period (over 10 years) and 10= no wait period.
  • Accessibility refers to how available the certificate option is for individuals with criminal records in the state, where 1= very low accessibility (only nonviolent, first-time offenders are eligible) and 10= highly accessible (all individuals with a criminal record can apply).
  • Scope refers to what the certificate program aims to do or accomplish, where 1= a limited scope, for example an automatic presumption of rehabilitation for licensing with no enforcement mechanisms, and 10= a broad scope, for example a program that seeks to provide relief for an individual across a myriad of areas (employment, voting rights, housing).
  • Value refers to the extent to which the certification, if granted, improves the area in which it is intended to bring improvement, where 1= little to no value, and 10= the certificate is highly valuable and impactful.
  • Bonus refers to a specific component of a state’s certificate program that either increases or decreases program quality, for example the states that offer immunity to employers from negligent hiring lawsuits were given a bonus point, and Nevada lost a point because a certificate hasn’t been granted in the state for over a decade.

Although the matrix allows us to compare states side-by-side, it has its limitations. First, this evaluation tool does not measure the frequency with which certificates are granted, unless it is specifically indicated in the description. This information has been left out for most states because the information is unpublished, or at least not easily accessible.

Secondly, the matrix does not necessarily measure the overall quality of the certificate program because each state’s program has different stated goals, so direct comparison is bound to be flawed. For example, some states, like Ohio, have programs that offer relief only for very specific occupational licenses, while others, like California, seek to offer relief from collateral consequences that affect one’s life much more broadly.

A third limitation to the matrix is that, depending on the individual and his or her states’ program goals, it’s nearly impossible to arbitrarily assign a numeric score. For example, a long ‘wait time’ can sometimes be a positive program component, and sometimes a negative. Although excessively long wait times will disqualify a lot of people (many of whom would benefit from the certificate), the more time that has passed since an individual’s last conviction, the better and more substantiated proof there may be of rehabilitation. Programs that have very short wait times will, obviously, permit more people to apply, but by doing so may reduce the value of the certificate solely due to the fact that individuals don’t have to wait as long to apply for it. For these reasons, the matrix should be seen as one lens through which the 14 state programs can be compared, rather than a complete and definite ranking from ‘best’ to ‘worst.’

Table 1-Certificate of Rehabilitation State Assessment

[1] http://www.sentencingproject.org/doc/publications/cc_HiT_CriminalRecords_profile_1.pdf

[2] https://cdn.americanprogress.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/VallasCriminalRecordsReport.pdf

[3]https://www.prisonlegalnews.org/media/publications/States%20Rethink%20Collateral%20Consequences%2C%20Vera%20Inst.%2C%202014.pdf

[4] http://www.shouselaw.com/nevada/certificate-good-conduct.html

Reimagining Reentry: Letters from Inside

Happy Holidays, Friends of Root & Rebound!

As 2015 comes to a close, we are excited and proud to launch our end-of-year campaign, Reimagine Reentry, featuring a video about our work, Letters from Inside.

The goal of this campaign is not only to raise money, but to raise awareness in the Bay Area and beyond about what we do here at Root & Rebound. This year, Root & Rebound produced and published the Roadmap to Reentry, a legal guide that provides comprehensive guidance on barriers in reentry across nine areas of law and life.

In 2016, we plan to expand the use of Roadmap to Reentry, so that we can transfer powerful information from a small legal community to the massive number of people facing disenfranchisement upon release.

Additionally, we will provide more community-based trainings across California—in prisons, for families with incarcerated loved ones; with correctional departments; at community centers, and in places of worship—to strengthen families and communities.

We also plan to make the Roadmap to Reentry information more accessible for people in reentry and their advocates by building online content and interactive toolkits to reach more people, thus increasing access.

Finally, we will continue our policy reform work and grow our efforts to educate partner groups, advocates, and policymakers about issues on the ground—to reduce barriers and expand opportunities for people coming out of prison and jail, and create a healthier society.

To accomplish all this, we need your help! Please take 3 minutes to watch our video, share with your social networks, and if you can, make a donation.

 

Reflections on R&R Internship

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Reflection on Root & Rebound Internship

This post was written by our incredible outgoing summer intern, Sofie Werthan, when prompted with the question, “What did you learn this summer?” Sofie is a rising sophomore at Wellesley College, near Boston, Massachusetts, where she is an intended Ethnic Studies major focusing on systems of oppression. As you will learn from this post, Sofie is truly amazing, a gifted and talented writer and thinker. We were lucky to have her this summer and hope she will go back to school using her talents for criminal and social justice reform. Here are Sofie’s thoughts:

“In some ways, the United States prison system is like a black hole. People get pulled into its gaping rift, and it’s as if they have simply vanished from society for good. By disappearing individuals who have violated the cultural, social, and legal underpinnings of our society, prison does an exceedingly good job of obscuring many underlying social problems and inequities. While families and friends notice the absence of their incarcerated loved ones, many people (without an immediate connection to those on the inside) don’t spend much time actively thinking about what happens to people in prison, let alone what happens after they return from prison. In fact, we are even encouraged not to think about those who have been sucked into the carceral vortex: currently and formerly incarcerated people have been constructed as the societal Other to reject, in contrast with the aspirational figure of the successful law-abiding citizen. By promoting this dichotomy through legal and cultural barriers to reentry, we as a society have set up formerly incarcerated people for failure, vilification, and alienation from our culture and communities.

Before this summer, I was pretty ignorant to the specifics of what happens to people after they are released from prison/jail. In fact, I wanted to intern at Root & Rebound specifically because of my ignorance on this specific issue. Over the past several years, I have become more aware of social justice issues, and during this past year in college, I have participated in the Black Lives Matter movement. I have begun to research the historical and contemporary roots of police brutality, mass incarceration, the militarization of law enforcement, and the over-policing of non-white communities. However, much of this education has come from an academic perspective divorced from individuals’ personal experiences. I came to Root & Rebound in hopes of bridging this gap by directly engaging with my fellow community members who are in the process of reentry.

I grew up in a relatively privileged environment in Berkeley. While lower income communities and communities of color in Oakland, Richmond, and even within Berkeley are subject to the cyclical oppression and violence wrought by the prison industrial complex, I was able to maintain my distance emotionally and psychologically (if not physically, as well). None of my immediate family or friends have been incarcerated. Until this summer, my most intimate connections to the prison system were the fact that I drove past San Quentin State Prison every day on my way to and from high school and that I visited Alcatraz once to see Ai Weiwei’s art exhibit. I wanted to change this sense of personal detachment.

During my internship at Root & Rebound, I have immersed myself in the world of criminal justice and reentry from a more personal, holistic, and community-based perspective. In addition to getting an inside look at the tremendous work it takes to keep a small non-profit up and running, I also learned a lot about the myriad hardships that come along with a criminal record. By reading parts of Root & Rebound’s recently published Roadmap to Reentry guide, attending lectures, and having discussions with formerly incarcerated people and their loved ones, I became aware of the many hurdles to employment, housing, education, and public benefits that formerly incarcerated people have to navigate. I learned about the complicated legal web of restrictions, regulations, and mandates that trap many formerly incarcerated people upon release.

During my summer, I have been exposed to many great opportunities: I have had the privilege of listening to the criminal justice-reform speaker Michael Santos, attending a panel (that included R&R’s own Sonja Tonnesen!) about the ADA as it relates to prisons and reentry, and engaging with many fantastic formerly incarcerated people at an advanced film screening of the documentary Life After Life. This summer has taught me innumerable lessons about forgiveness, humanity, and compassion. I made many connections to people involved in advocacy work and started forging inter-community bonds. This summer has made me even more excited about local non-profit advocacy work and has helped me feel even closer to the Bay Area community.
My internship came at a unique time in our country’s history. The criminal justice system and its many flaws have taken the center stage as President Obama’s concludes his final term. This summer, I have witnessed history being made as Obama became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison, announce a reconsideration of this country’s excessive use of solitary confinement, and reinstate Pell Grants for incarcerated people. By fits and starts, criminal justice reform is now a hot topic. Media, politicians, celebrities, and ordinary people across the country are waking up to the prospect of (bipartisan!) prison reform. It seems like an emphasis on rehabilitation and tolerance is beginning to replace a culture of harsh discipline and cold indifference to the struggles of currently and formerly incarcerated people. I am proud to have played a small part in the movement this summer. Thank you R&R for giving me the opportunity to help make a change!”

Solitary Confinement: “It’s As If We Want Them to Fail”

Written by Sean Larner Evan Ebel was worried about leaving prison — and reasonably so. His last couple years were spent by himself in a cinderblock cell the size of two queen mattresses. Before his release Ebel wondered, in a … Continue reading

#BanTheBox: Take Action for Federal Fair-Chance Hiring!

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Join the National Employment Law Project (NELP) and The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights today for a National Day of Action calling on President Obama to give people with records a fair chance to work at federal agencies and contractors.

Here’s how to help:

  • Sign this letter to President Obama urging his administration to ‘Ban the Box’ on federal job applications and to adopt other fair chance hiring reforms for all job seekers, including those with records!
  • Send a tweet to President Obama (@POTUS)
    • It’s time for the U.S. to adopt a federal #FairChance hiring policy! Tell @POTUS to #BantheBox pic.twitter.com/73sQk8oixo
    • @POTUS can help open up employment opportunities for qualified job-seekers with records #BanTheBox #FairChance pic.twitter.com/73sQk8oixo
    • #FairChance reforms restore hope & opportunity to qualified job-seekers with an arrest or conviction record. @POTUS, it’s time to #BanTheBox

Nationwide, over 100 cities and counties have adopted what is widely known as “ban the box” so that employers consider a job candidate’s qualifications first, without the stigma of a conviction record. These initiatives provide applicants a fair chance by removing the conviction history question on the job application and delaying the background check inquiry until later in the hiring.

17 states and over 100 cities and counties have taken steps to remove barriers to employment for qualified workers with records. Six states, the District of Columbia, and eleven cities and counties extend their fair chance hiring policies to local private employers. It’s time for President Obama to take executive action on federal fair chance hiring.

Here’s the bottom line: Fair chance hiring policies should extend to federal contractors and agents. Formerly incarcerated people deserve equitable opportunities to success.


“Ban the box” initiatives help individuals, families, and local communities by reducing the stigma attached to having a criminal record. These policies are based on fairness, inclusion, and community improvement. Citizens going through the reentry process face myriad barriers to their access to housing, social services, education, and employment. Fair chance hiring policies help alleviate boundaries to formerly incarcerated people’s success.

Stable and secure employment is critical if we hope to give meaningful second chances to people coming home from prison and jail. Formerly incarcerated people should not be denied the ability to succeed. The federal government has the opportunity to send a message that people in the reentry process are valuable—and valued—members of society.

“Roadmap to Reentry Guide & Interactive Hub” are Live!

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Root & Rebound is proud to introduce “Roadmap to Reentry: A California Legal Guide,” which will help to educate, support, and empower the 50,000 Californians leaving prison and jail each year, and the tens of thousands of people across the state who support them–family and loved ones, educators, social workers, legal advocates, and community supervision agencies.

Visit www.rootandrebound.org/roadmap to find out more!

THANK YOU TO ALL WHO WORKED ON THE GUIDE & HUB!

WE COULDN”T HAVE DONE IT WITHOUT YOU.

The “Roadmap to Reentry” guide is the first of its kind in the United States, an in-depth legal resource for people struggling through reentry. It is comprehensive in scope and length (1,200 pages!), covering nine areas of law and civic life: housing, public benefits, parole & probation, education, understanding & cleaning up your criminal record, ID & voting, family & children, court-ordered debt, and employment. With a California focus, the guide is written in simple language and meant to be used as a resource that people can turn to (rather than read cover-to-cover!) whenever they encounter challenges along the way. The guide is available free of charge to people in reentry and their loved ones, while professionals at community-based organizations, government agencies, and the like will be asked to make a sliding scale donation of $20-$50. On Root & Rebound’s “Roadmap to Reentry” Interactive Hub, you can download copies of the guide, request a hard copy, ask the Root & Rebound team a question, or request a training for your organization.

In conjunction with the guide, Root & Rebound will begin to conduct trainings across the state of California for communities in need: people in reentry, those preparing for release, and the people who support them in the community, including legal and social service providers, community supervision officers, and friends and family. Our first training on May 29th in the Bayview area of San Francisco is full, but many more will come soon! Email roadmap@rootandrebound.org to request a training, or do so through the hub.

Launch Event
We welcome you to our “Roadmap to Reentry” launch event at Root & Rebound’s downtown Oakland office (1730 Franklin Street, Suite 300, Oakland, CA 94612) on Thursday, June 4, from 4:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m, where you can learn more about the guide, get hard copies, and ask questions to the R&R team.

Media are invited, interviews are available, and all are welcome.

Please spread the word @ROOTandREBOUND and on Facebook! #roadmaptoreentry

Pick 6 (5/10/2015)

Views from 6

Hello friends. Happy Mother’s Day! We’re back with our weekly feature–Pick 6. Our Pick 6 consists of 6 informative, insightful reentry & criminal justice-related news articles and commentaries that we’ve been following throughout the week. We welcome your thoughts and feedback, so don’t be shy!

1.) How Baltimore and cities like it hold back poor black children as they grow up (Washington Post)

“Every year a poor boy spends growing up in Baltimore, this research found, his earnings as an adult fall by 1.5 percent. Add up an entire childhood, and that means a 26-year-old man in Baltimore earns about 28 percent less than he would if he had grown up somewhere in average America. And that’s a whole lot less than the very same child would earn if he had grown up, 50 miles away, in Fairfax County.

That one result — among data Chetty and Hendren have calculated for every county in America — marks a remarkable convergence this week of slow-going social science and current events. If young men in Baltimore who have been protesting for the last two weeks are lashing out at a long legacy of inherited disadvantage, they are also reacting to a reality today that empirical data now confirms: Baltimore is a terrible place to grow up as a poor black boy.”

2.) Chicago to Pay $5.5 Million in Reparations for Police Torture Victims (Rolling Stone)

“We’re the first municipality in the history of the country to make reparations for racialized police torture and violence, and I hope that other jurisdictions and other municipalities follow suit,” Mariame Kaba, founding director of Project NIA, an organization that helped push through the reparations, tells Rolling Stone. “It’s one thing to sue civilly for money and damages. It’s another thing to insist that people receive care for the trauma they’ve experienced. It’s another thing to insist that people get education and their kids benefit and grandkids benefit. It’s another thing to really focus on the importance of memorializing the harm done, the atrocities visited upon real people.”

3.) The Painful Price of Aging in Prison (Washington Post)

Also see: Older Prisoners, Higher Costs (The Marshall Project)

“Harsh sentencing policies, including mandatory minimums, continue to have lasting consequences for inmates and the nation’s prison system. Today, prisoners 50 and older represent the fastest-growing population in crowded federal correctional facilities, their ranks having swelled by 25 percent to nearly 31,000 from 2009 to 2013.”

4.) Are We Witnessing an Emergence of a Black Spring? (Ebony)

Equal Justice Society board vice chair Priscilla Ocen co-authored this must-read piece on the emergence of a ‪#‎BlackSpring‬

“The description of the Arab Spring could just as easily apply to the mobilizations in the United States, in Ferguson, in New York and now in Baltimore. The similarities between these movements have not escaped the notice of many activists in the United States, as they see the connections between the conditions they confront in poor Black neighborhoods, the eruption of protests in American cities, and the resistance efforts of peoples in the Arab World. For these activists, the protest movements in places like Baltimore signal the rise of a “Black Spring,” a kindred movement spurred by many of the same structural symptoms and subhuman conditions that ignited the popular protests in the Arab World.

5.) Inquiry to Examine Racial Bias in the San Francisco Police (New York Times)

Time to investigate…
“Blacks make up about 5% of the city’s population, but account for half of its inmates and more than 60% of the children in juvenile detention.”

6.) Clinton on incarceration: ‘We cast too wide a net’ (KRGV)

‘Clinton signed into law an omnibus crime bill in 1994 that included the federal “three strikes” provision, mandating life sentences for criminals convicted of a violent felony after two or more prior convictions, including drug crimes. On Wednesday, Clinton acknowledged that policy’s role in over-incarceration in an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour.”

For Mother’s Day

+1) What It’s Like to Visit Your Mom in Prison on Mother’s Day (Mother Jones)

+1) The New Mothers in Bedford Hills (The Marshall Project)

+1) Ella Baker Center Mama’s Day 2015

Audio of the week) #BlackLivesMatter: Alicia Garza on the Origins of a Movement (RadioProject.org)

“Black Lives Matter. This simple phrase has become the motto of a growing movement calling for true justice and equalty for black people. Alicia Garza, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, first typed out those three words back in 2013. In March of 2015, Alicia Garza visited the University of Southern Maine to tell the story of how Black Lives Matter came to be, and express her hopes for where it’s headed. We hear her speech.”

Report of the week) TURNING ON THE TAP: How Returning Access to Tuition Assistance for Incarcerated People Improves the Health of New Yorkers (forthcoming May 12th)

Quote of the week) “Mass incarceration is ahistorical, criminogenic, inefficient, and racist,” Paul Butler, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center from The Milwaukee Experiment (The New Yorker)

Image of the week)

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#BlackLivesMatter #BlackSpring

Pick 6 (4/24/15)

Views from 6

Hello friends. We’re back again with our weekly feature–Pick 6. Our Pick 6 consists of 6 informative, insightful reentry & criminal justice-related news articles and commentaries that we’ve been following throughout the week. We welcome your thoughts and feedback, so don’t be shy!

1.) ‘Release cards’ turn inmates and families into profit streams (Al Jazeera America)

“Correctional facilities across the country are increasingly sending former inmates home with their funds returned on pre-paid debit cards, known in the industry as release cards. In addition to adoption by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, 17 state prison agencies reported using them…Prison reform advocates like Peter Wagner of the Prison Policy Initiative say that their use is even more widespread among the nation’s nearly 3,300 jails. With almost 12 million people admitted to county and city jails each year, these local facilities provide a steady source of cardholders subject to high fees…Unlike consumer debit cards, prison-issued cards are completely unregulated when it comes to the fees that can be charged. The result is high transaction and maintenance fees that bear little relation to the actual costs of the services provided…A review of bids and contracts in several states and counties found ATM withdrawal fees of nearly $3 per transaction. A simple balance inquiry typically incurs a charge of $1.50. Account maintenance fees, deducted even if no transactions are made, can be as much as $2.50 per week. Cardholders who opt to transfer their balances to a bank account can be charged closing fees of $30. These cards are designed to generate income for the private vendors that furnish them…The cost of issuing and managing the cards is paid for solely by the exorbitant fees former inmates must pay, fees that quickly deplete their already meager balances…The vendors aren’t the only ones making a profit from these fees. It’s common practice for these companies to send a cut of the collected fees directly to the prison agencies and jails. These “commissions,” essentially legalized kickbacks, make money transfers and other fee-generating services a reliable profit engine for the corrections agencies themselves.”

2.) 40,000 Maryland Ex-Cons May Soon Get Their Voting Rights Back (Mother Jones)

“A national, bipartisan effort to roll back restrictions on felon voting rights could soon take a big step forward in Maryland. Earlier this month, the Maryland legislature passed a bill that would restore the right to vote to felons immediately after release from prison. Currently, Maryland is one of 20 states that bars felons from voting until they have completed prison time, parole, and probation. The bill currently sits on the desk of Governor Larry Hogan, a Republican who has backed criminal justice reform. If enacted, the law would make it easier for 40,000 Maryland residents with past convictions to exercise their voting rights.”

3.) American Outcasts: US Prisons and Modern Day Banishment (The Intercept)

“In ancient times, communities would often rid themselves of convicted criminals and other undesirables through the practice of banishment: casting unwanted people out into the wilderness. The Romans often employed banishment as an alternative to capital punishment, and indeed, considered it a fate nearly as terrible as death. Later, the British Empire liberally employed the punishment of banishment and transportation to colonies such as Australia, while the Soviet Union became known for its use of internal banishment to Siberia. The terms exile, outlaw and outcast all owe their origin to this once widespread practice. As the world grew smaller, banishment, as a practical matter, virtually ceased to exist. Though it still remains on the books in a few Southern states, it is generally thought of as an archaic form of punishment, and one that cannot function effectively in the modern world. Yet the impetus behind banishment — to permanently remove individuals from society, and subject them to a kind of “social death” — flourishes today in the American criminal justice system, where prisons and jails are the settings for a new kind of internal exile…According to the Sentencing Project, nearly 50,000 Americans are currently serving life without the possibility of parole (LWOP), a punishment that has been called “the other death sentence,” and which, like capital punishment, is unknown in Europe. In excess of 100,000 more are serving life sentences…It is here, and not just in the popular areas of low level drug offenses or other easy reforms, that we must look for true change in our criminal justice system.”

4.) Public defenders: The fast food workers of justice? (The Southern Illinoisan)

“Although applauding the skill and dedication of public defenders, Larry Lauterjung was ready to do about anything else after serving as an assistant public defender for nearly 10 years…He describes being a public defender as a cross between an air-traffic controller and working at a fast-food restaurant. There are a lot of moving parts that have to be dealt with quickly and with people’s lives hanging in the balance. “Other public defenders that I have known, I have seen the toll that the stress takes on them. I have seen some who lasted to the point that they retired and they are some of the strongest people I have ever known in my life,” [Lauterjung says].”

5.) New York City Just Outlawed Running Credit Checks on Job Applicants (Truthout)

 New York’s City Council just voted overwhelmingly to outlaw the common practice of letting employers prejudge people based on their credit history—passing an unprecedented ban against employers use of workers’ credit background data…The rationale behind the ban is simple: it’s unfair and useless to use a person’s credit history, which is often inaccurate or misleading, when assessing their job qualifications…[A] negative credit record is associated with many of the disadvantages of being poor, jobless, not white, or in poor health—and not with how trustworthy you are or how well you write computer code or repair a car. But since employers can generally pull up credit data…this information can easily be misinterpreted or manipulated. By providing convenient proxies for race and class, data can become a tool to simultaneously affirm and perpetuate negative stereotypes of workers based on arbitrary factors…”It’s a huge civil rights issue along racial lines, but it’s also a huge privacy issue,” [Sarah Ludwig of the New Economic Project] says. “Because if you are applying for a job, why should your prospective employer know that you lost your house…or that you broke up with your spouse and that created financial distress.” Of the new ban, Ludwig states,  “It’s a strong law…and it’s going to cover most New Yorkers [and] most jobs by far and away. It’s a real civil rights victory.”

6.) Justice Department opens probe into death of Freddie Gray (Baltimore Sun)

“The Department of Justice has been monitoring the developments in Baltimore, Md., regarding the death of Freddie Gray,” spokeswoman Dena Iverson said in a statement. “Based on preliminary information, the Department of Justice has officially opened this matter and is gathering information to determine whether any prosecutable civil rights violation occurred.” (Related: The Mysterious Death of Freddie Gray)

+1) Confederate History Month: An embarrassing Abomination (Huffington Post)

“Seven state governments have designated April as Confederate History Month. Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas and Virginia all participate in this misguided paean to a troubling past…Southerners today seem incapable of understanding that the South started and then lost a war that nearly destroyed the United States. The South lost decisively. The rebel cause was unjust, immoral and treasonous. The economic justification was unseemly; the actions were treasonous. There is no part of the Confederate cause of which to be proud. There is no moral high ground here…Now is a good time to close this chapter of hypocrisy and inconsistency. A southern loyalist cannot be a patriot; the two ideals are mutually incompatible. You cannot simultaneously love the United States and love the idea of dissolving the bond between states that constitute the country.”

Report of the week) Above the Law: An Investigation of Civil Asset Forfeiture Abuses in California (Drug Policy Alliance)

“Above the Law: An Investigation of Civil Asset Forfeiture Abuses in California is a multi-year, comprehensive look at asset forfeiture abuses in California that reveals the troubling extent to which law enforcement agencies have violated state and federal law. Civil asset forfeiture law allows the government to seize and keep cash, cars, real estate, and any other property – even from citizens never charged with or convicted of a crime.

Graphic of the week) FBI admits flaws in hair analysis over decades (Washington Post)

The Justice Department and FBI have formally acknowledged that nearly every examiner in an elite FBI forensic unit gave flawed testimony in almost all trials in which they offered evidence against criminal defendants over more than a two-decade period before 2000. Of 28 examiners with the FBI Laboratory’s microscopic hair comparison unit, 26 overstated forensic matches in ways that favored prosecutors in more than 95 percent of the 268 trials reviewed so far, according to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) and the Innocence Project, which are assisting the government with the country’s largest post-conviction review of questioned forensic evidence. The cases include those of 32 defendants sentenced to death. Of those, 14 have been executed or died in prison, the groups said under an agreement with the government to release results after the review of the first 200 convictions.

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(courtesy of the Washington Post)

Extra graphic of the week) 1.5 Million Black Men Are Missing (New York Times)

“In New York, almost 120,000 black men between the ages of 25 and 54 are missing from everyday life. In Chicago, 45,000 are, and more than 30,000 are missing in Philadelphia. Across the South — from North Charleston, S.C., through Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi and up into Ferguson, Mo. — hundreds of thousands more are missing. They are missing, largely because of early deaths or because they are behind bars. Remarkably, black women who are 25 to 54 and not in jail outnumber black men in that category by 1.5 million, according to anUpshot analysis. For every 100 black women in this age group living outside of jail, there are only 83 black men…African-American men have long been more likely to be locked up and more likely to die young, but the scale of the combined toll is nonetheless jarring. It is a measure of the deep disparities that continue to afflict black men — disparities being debated after a recent spate of killings by the police — and the gender gap is itself a further cause of social ills, leaving many communities without enough men to be fathers and husbands.”

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(courtesy of the New York Times)

Pick 6 (4/17/15)

Views from 6

Hi friends. Again it is Friday, so again it is time for our weekly Pick 6! Our Pick 6 consists of 6 informative, insightful reentry & criminal justice-related news articles and commentaries that we’ve been following throughout the week. We welcome any and all thoughts or feedback, so don’t be shy!

1.) John Legend Launches Campaign to End Mass Incarceration (AP)

From the AP: “John Legend has launched a campaign to end mass incarceration. The Grammy-winning singer announced the multiyear initiative, FREE AMERICA, on Monday…”We have a serious problem with incarceration in this country,” Legend said in an interview. “It’s destroying families, it’s destroying communities and we’re the most incarcerated country in the world, and when you look deeper and look at the reasons we got to this place, we as a society made some choices politically and legislatively, culturally to deal with poverty, deal with mental illness in a certain way and that way usually involves using incarceration…I’m just trying to create some more awareness to this issue and trying to make some real change legislatively.”

2.) Are you running for President? Please answer these questions about the criminal justice system. (Washington Post)

Thus far, Hilary Clinton (D), Ted Cruz (R), Marco Rubio (R), and Rand Paul (R) have announced their candidacies for President of the United States. Radley Balko, author of the book “Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces,” has strung together a “quick and dirty list of [criminal justice related] questions” that he’d like to see 2016 Presidential candidates answer.

3.) Federal Prosecutor Tries a Radical Tactic in the Drug War: Not Throwing People in Prison (Huffington Post)

“[South Carolina’s top] U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles is testing out a novel approach to dealing with drug-related crime, one that aims to clean up the streets by looking beyond mass arrests and incarceration…If the program’s success continues in South Carolina, it could become a model for law enforcement across the country…Nettles’ plan is surprisingly straightforward. First, federal and local prosecutors identify local drug dealers with the help of the police, probation officers and community members. Next, they build criminal cases against them by reviewing records for outstanding warrants and conducting undercover drug buys. In most cases, arresting all the dealers would be the next order of business, but Nettles has a different idea. While high-level dealers are still arrested and prosecuted, some low-level offenders are given another option. For them, Nettles stages something of an intervention. Together with the police, family members, religious leaders and other members of the community, prosecutors present the dealers with the evidence against them and give them a choice: Face the prospect of prison or participate in the pilot project. The program, officially known as the Drug Market Intervention Initiative, helps the dealers find legitimate jobs and offers them help with drug treatment, education and transportation. The hope is that it provides them with the support and the motivation they need to turn their lives around.”

4.) Driver’s License Suspension Create Cycle of Debt (New York Times)

“The last time Kenneth Seay lost his job, at an industrial bakery that offered health insurance and Christmas bonuses, it was because he had been thrown in jail for legal issues stemming from a revoked driver’s license. Same with the three jobs before that. In fact, Mr. Seay said, when it comes to gainful employment, it is not his criminal record that is holding him back — he did time for dealing drugs — but the $4,509.22 in fines, court costs and reinstatement fees he must pay to recover his license. Mr. Seay’s inability to pay those costs has trapped him in a cycle that thousands of other low-income Tennesseans are struggling to escape. Going through the legal system, even for people charged with nonviolent misdemeanors, can be expensive, with fines, public defender fees, probation fees and other costs running into hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars. Many people cannot pay. As a result, some states have begun suspending driver’s licenses for unsatisfied debts stemming from any criminal case, from misdemeanors like marijuana possession to felonies in which court costs can reach into the tens of thousands of dollars. In Tennessee, almost 90,000 driver’s licenses have been suspended since its law was enacted in 2011…Many defendants are forced to choose between paying court debt or essentials like utility bills and child support. Mr. Seay said his tax refund this year went toward child support debt accumulated during his time in prison and periods of unemployment. For even low-level offenders, debt can make a valid license unattainable…In Tennessee, judges have the discretion to waive court fees and fines for indigent defendants, but they do not have to, and some routinely refuse. Judges also have wide discretion over how much time to allow defendants to pay traffic tickets before suspending a license.”

5.) The Legal Right to Videotape Police Isn’t Actually All that Clear (City Lab)

From The Atlantic’s City Lab: “Last Saturday, a Dominican immigrant named Feidin Santana used his phone to record video of North Charleston police officer Michael Slager firing his gun eight times and killing Walter Scott, an unarmed black man who was running away. Slager has been charged with murder. Santana, who is being celebrated as a hero, has since said that he was terrified and thought about erasing the video. He had reason to be afraid. What if police had assaulted or arrested Santana, or destroyed his phone?…[T]he truth is that courts have not uniformly recognized that a right to record police actually exists. Though the U.S. Department of Justice has expressed its support for the right to record, only four federal appeals courts have ruled that such a right exists; others have either not ruled at all or narrowly ruled that no right had been “clearly established.” Until a right to record police is in fact clearly established, some officers will continue to act against bystanders who record them with impunity.” (Related: California Senate seeks to clarify right to video police conduct)

6.) D.C. Council rejects Corizon Health contract after lobbying battle (Washington Post)

Last month, R&R Legal Fellow Dominik Taylor blogged about the deadly consequences of for-profit prison healthcare. Dominik specifically mentioned Corizon Health’s failings in Alabama and in Alameda County, California. Our last Pick this week is an update on Corizon Health and the movement to improve healthcare for incarcerated people. From the Washington Post: “The D.C. Council on Tuesday rejected a controversial health-care contract proposed for the city’s jail after weeks of fierce arguments and heavy lobbying by supporters and opponents. The council’s 6-to-5 vote against a $66 million proposal by Corizon Health marked a high-profile defeat for Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), who had supported the contract….Contract opponents cast the decision as a victory for inmate care and a rejection of a company mired in legal troubles in other states, including several high-profile wrongful-death lawsuits. David Grosso (I) said that if getting the best possible care for the city’s inmates is the objective, then “contracting with a for-profit, scandal-prone company is not the way for us to get there.” 

Report of the week) Stop and Frisk in Chicago (ACLU of Illinois)

From the executive summary of our report of the week: “Chicago has failed to train, supervise and monitor law enforcement in minority communities for decades, resulting in a failure to ensure that officers’ use of stop and frisk is lawful. This report contains troubling signs that the Chicago Police Department has a current practice of unlawfully using stop and frisk: Although officers are required to write down the reason for stops, in nearly half of the stops we reviewed, officers either gave an unlawful reason for the stop or failed to provide enough information to justify the stop. Stop and frisk is disproportionately concentrated in the black community. Black Chicagoans were subjected to 72% of all stops, yet constitute just 32% of the city’s population. And, even in majority white police districts, minorities were stopped disproportionately to the number of minority people living in those districts. Chicago stops a shocking number of people. Last summer, there were more than 250,000 stops that did not lead to an arrest. Comparing stops to population, Chicagoans were stopped more than four times as often as New Yorkers at the height of New York City’s stop and frisk practice. In the face of a systemic abuse of this law enforcement practice, Chicago refuses to keep adequate data about its officers’ stops…This failure to record data makes it impossible for police supervisors, or the public, to identify bad practices and make policy changes to address them.”

Extra of the week) Letter from Birmingham Jail (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.)

52 years ago this week (4/16/1963) Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. penned his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail.The letter defends his strategy of nonviolent resistance to racism. King declares that people have a moral responsibility to break unjust laws, and to take direct action rather than waiting potentially forever for justice to come through the courts. King famously wrote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” (Related: What if MLK’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” Had Been a Facebook Post?)

Take a few moments this weekend to read King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. Or if your prefer, here is audio of King reading the letter. Enjoy. #BlackLivesMatter

Pick 6 (4/10/15)

Views from 6

Hello friends. We’re back with our weekly feature–Pick 6. Our Pick 6 consists of 6 informative, insightful reentry & criminal justice-related news articles and commentaries that we’ve been following throughout the week. We welcome your thoughts and feedback, so don’t be shy!

1.) South Carolina Officer is Charged With Murder of Walter Scott (New York Times)

“A white police officer in North Charleston, S.C., was charged with murder on Tuesday after a video surfaced showing him shooting in the back and killing an apparently unarmed black man while the man ran away. The officer, Michael T. Slager, 33, said he had feared for his life because the man [Walter Scott] had taken his stun gun in a scuffle after a traffic stop on Saturday. A video, however, shows the officer firing eight times as the man, Walter L. Scott, 50, fled. The North Charleston mayor announced the state charges at a news conference Tuesday evening…[T]he video, which was taken by a bystander and provided to The New York Times by the Scott family’s lawyer, presents a different account [than Officer Slager’s]. The video begins in the vacant lot, apparently moments after Officer Slager fired his Taser. Wires, which carry the electrical current from the stun gun, appear to be extending from Mr. Scott’s body as the two men tussle and Mr. Scott turns to run. Something — it is not clear whether it is the stun gun — is either tossed or knocked to the ground behind the two men, and Officer Slager draws his gun, the video shows. When the officer fires, Mr. Scott appears to be 15 to 20 feet away and fleeing. He falls after the last of eight shots. The officer then runs back toward where the initial scuffle occurred and picks something up off the ground. Moments later, he drops an object near Mr. Scott’s body, the video shows.”

2.) Felons barred from constructing Apple’s campus (San Francisco Chronicle)

“Apple is known for being secretive and picky about who works on its popular devices, but now, union officials say, that thinking also applies to the construction workers pouring the concrete for the tech giant’s new offices. Several construction workers who were hired to build the exterior of Apple’s new campus in Cupertino were ordered to leave the site in January due to prior felony convictions, several union officials and workers told The Chronicle. The ban is unusual for construction work, a field in which employers typically do not perform criminal background checks…For work on the Apple site, anyone with a felony conviction or facing felony charges “does not meet owner standards,” according to documents from construction companies acquired by The Chronicle…Banning felons could bring about legal ramifications for Apple, said Lisa Klerman, a law professor at the University of Southern California. “If they are just disqualifying people with felony convictions with no connection to the job, they could be challenged legally,” Klerman said. People who have served prison or jail time, or have a felony conviction on their record, are 20 percent less likely to find work, compared with people in the same demographic who don’t have criminal records…There are at least 12 million people in the United States in this category…“When people get an opportunity to get a job and make a living, their likelihood of returning to crime goes down dramatically,” said John Schmitt, a senior economist with the [Center for Economic and Policy Research]. “There is a strong association with people not finding a job and people ending up back behind bars.”

3.) Sprinklers Out, Still Homeless (Truthout)

“In my own town of Berkeley, just across the bay from San Francisco, the city council, rallied by our Downtown Business Association, is working to pass a set of ordinances that would prohibit sleeping on public sidewalks, asking for spare change, using blankets and setting down belongings in our downtown area. In a city with significantly more homeless people than shelter beds available, this amounts to criminalizing behaviors that people engage in to survive…As more and more wealthy tech workers move to San Francisco, people are being forced from their communities, from their cities, to places they can afford. For those who can no longer afford rent, this means moving into a car or onto the street. For those on the streets, gentrification means intensified policing and a rising threat of incarceration. UC Berkeley Law’s Policy Advocacy Center recently reported a dramatic increase in “anti­-vagrancy” laws that further criminalize the already marginalized homeless population, pushing people into jails, out of sight and out of mind. San Francisco is currently pushing to build a new jail in the city – I guess to provide housing for people displaced by these measures.” (related: Five Reasons Why San Francisco Needs to Use Public Lands for Public Benefit, Not Luxury Housing)

4.) Judge: Parts of state’s sex offender law unconstitutional (Detroit Free Press)

“Michigan’s Sex Offender Registry law is so vague that parts of it are unconstitutional, including the requirement that offenders stay at least 1,000 feet from schools, a federal judge has ruled. U.S. District Judge Robert Cleland, in a 72 page ruling, struck down several reporting requirements of the 1994 law, which has been amended several times by state lawmakers to make requirements stricter. And he struck down several other requirements, including a mandate that offenders report in person new e-mail and instant messaging addresses and notify authorities of all telephone numbers “routinely used by the individual.” The vagueness of the law “leaves law enforcement without adequate guidance to enforce the law and leaves registrants of ordinary intelligence unable to determine when the reporting requirements are triggered,” Cleland wrote in his ruling.”

5.) Unfair gang laws in California discriminate (The Muslim Observer)

San Jose native and Public Defender Sajid A Khan writes, “In 1988, the state of California passed the Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention (STEP) Act in order to “seek the eradication of criminal activity by street gangs.” In enacting the STEP Act, the legislature declared that California was in “a state of crisis” caused by “violent street gangs whose members threaten, terrorize, and commit a multitude of crimes against the peaceful citizens of their neighborhoods” and sought to impose increased penalties on suspected street gang activity. In doing so, our lawmakers sanctioned stereotyping. In my practice handling gang cases, it has become abundantly clear that If someone looks a certain way, has certain tattoos, was raised in a certain neighborhood, and hangs out with certain people, law enforcement and school administrators will brand them as gang members…Yet, because of these factors that are usually beyond their control, my clients are labeled and demonized as gang members from a young age, a tag that they rarely can ever shake or remove. This stereotyping preys primarily upon impoverished minority males, namely young blacks and Latinos. In San Jose, my hometown, police commonly create field identification (FI) cards and place Latino youth in gang databases merely because of where they live, who their family members are, what colors they might been seen wearing, because they have a childhood nickname or because they are seen congregating on a street corner with friends. Once an individual is placed in a gang database or has a set of FI cards, there’s no way out. His friends are also likely to find themselves in the database because of their association with a “known” gang member.  A house of gang cards with a foundation built upon baseless stereotyping. Surely, there are some crimes that are gang motivated and should be prosecuted accordingly.  However, for every one of those, there are countless other prosecutions that are not based on actual gang related evidence and instead grounded in assumptions and prejudice.  Black and Latino young men are not all gang members, nor is every crime they commit gang related.”

6.) Exonerees are failed twice by the justice system (Los Angeles Times)

In an opinion piece for the LA Times, Scott Martelle writes, “Anthony Ray Hinton, a 58-year-old former warehouse worker, walked out of an Alabama prison late last week nearly 30 years after being sentenced to death for two murders he didn’t commit…”They took something from him that they don’t have the power to give back, but I think that they ought to, one, to initiate anything they can do to pay for some of the outrageous injustice this case creates. But I think if there’s really going to be any kind of meaningful response to this, not only should he be compensated, but people should be held accountable. People should apologize. People should do some soul-searching. We should create some procedures that mandate that when there is evidence that suggests the person is wrongly convicted, that that evidence has to be reviewed,” [stated Hinton’s attorney, Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative]…Only five states provide exonerees with mental health services or medical treatment — and, after years of substandard care, many former inmates have health problems. Only four offer job-placement assistance. So first the lives are ruined, and then once the error is corrected, the wrongfully convicted generally are just pushed back out into society, without a way to make a living, and without support from other than family or nonprofits. The injustice committed in our names is compounded, and often without proper compensation by the parties – police, prosecutors and witnesses – who stole years from the lives of the innocent, and left them, in many cases, ill-equipped to deal with a much faster paced society than the one from which they were plucked 10, 30, 30 or more years ago. In the end, we, as a society, fail.” (related: Talking to the man who just got exonerated after 30 years on death row)

Report of the week: The Process and Treatment of Mentally Ill Persons In the Criminal Justice System (The Urban Institute)

“Mentally ill offenders possess a unique set of circumstances and needs. However, all too often, they cycle through the criminal justice system without appropriate care to address their mental health. Their recurring involvement in the criminal justice system is a pressing concern. This report provides a national landscape on the processing and treatment of mentally ill individuals in the criminal justice system. It also highlights challenges involved in the reintegration of mentally ill offenders into society, the diversity of policies and protocols in state statutes to address such challenges, and promising criminal justice interventions for mentally ill offenders.”

Audio of the week: Strange Fruit (Billie Holiday)

Tuesday April 7th would have been legendary singer Billie Holiday’s 100th birthday. Take a few minutes out of your weekend to listen to “Strange Fruit,” Holiday’s most famous song. Holiday first sang and performed “Strange Fruit” in 1939. “Strange Fruit” originated as a poem written by American writer, teacher and songwriter Abel Meeropol under the pseudonym Lewis Allan, as a protest against lynchings. In the poem, Meeropol expressed his horror at lynchings, inspired by Lawrence Beitler’s photograph of the 1930 lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, Indiana. In Yahoo News Reverend Shawn Amos writes, “Holiday should live forever as a reminder of what is best about America, and the magical music it has given the world. It is the music of freedom and defiance. It is the music of comfort and change. It is the music of revolution and the soundtrack of protest.” Read more here.

Info-graphic of the week: Not Just a Ferguson Problem: How Traffic Courts Drive Inequality in California (Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area)

“In California, a driver who commits offenses as minor as driving without a seatbelt or littering faces a $490 fine, according to a new report…Worse, if the driver, who may not be able to afford to pay such a fine, does not pay it off quickly enough or fails to appear in court, the consequence is a suspended license – a consequence that prevents them from driving to work to earn the money they need to pay off their fine. The result is a Catch-22, where the only way to raise the money to gain back their license to drive is to drive without a license and risk even more fines for doing so.” Read the full report here. And check out the accompanying infographic here.