The Restoration of Rights Project

Have you ever been arrested? Do you have a prior conviction?

Do you wonder whether you can clean up your record and how that affects you, if at all?

Start here. It’s called the Restoration of Rights Project, and it looks at the law in every state for restoring your rights and status after an arrest or conviction. It covers federal law, too.

For each state, the Project compiles answers to these questions:

  1. Whether and how you can seal, expunge, or dismiss your arrest or conviction.
  2. Whether and how you can restore your civil rights, like the right to vote.
  3. Whether and how your state’s laws affect your chance of landing a job or license, losing one, or getting it back.
  4. Whether your state has a regular process to apply for a pardon and how often it grants one.
  5. Whether and how you can stop having to register as a sex offender.

It’s a great resource not just for lawyers and the courts but for, in its words, “the millions of Americans with a criminal record who are seeking to put their past behind them.”

Judge Not, Lest We Be Judged

If you’re still not sold on the power of redemption, I may not be able to sway you.

But consider this guy. He committed a carjacking at 16 and spent eight years in prison for it. Today, at 35, he has a wife, two bouncy sons, and now, a law degree from Yale. He just graduated last month. I guess it’s good we didn’t throw away the key.

His story reminded me of three quotes I saw recently. They each spoke to why we should treat people humanely in our justice system. I saw them in the email signature of a defense lawyer in Texas, and while he and I have never met, I think they say something positive about him, too. If you need a lawyer in his neck of the woods, look him up.

I especially liked how the quotes were attributed to three very different people. An itinerant lawyer and activist. An influential computer scientist. An acclaimed writer and novelist.

Three different walks of life, but they seemed to agree on some things.

  1. Freedom is not worth having if it doesn’t include the freedom to make mistakes.”
  2. “Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment.”
  3. “Sometimes you make choices in life and sometimes the choices make you.”

Great quotes, all. You live and breathe long enough, you know them to be true.

A Model Penal Code for the 21st Century

Charging decisions, which we wrote about last week, matter for many reasons. They drive plea bargains, and they affect sentencing. You file a felony, for example, so that the guy will plead to a misdemeanor without giving you much trouble. It happens all the time.

Bad charging decisions, though, don’t just cause wrongful convictions or unjust sentences.

They cause other consequences that continue to torment you after you’ve served your sentence. Your actual sentence may include your jail or prison time, the fines you must pay, or the terms of probation you must follow. You did the crime so you should do the time and pay the fine, right? Okay, but then even after you do, you still may not be able to cast a vote, land a job, rent a home, hold a license, or get a loan. These are the so-called collateral consequences of a conviction.

But the future may be brighter.

Last week, the American Law Institute approved major changes to the Model Penal Code to address these consequences. The ALI is the leading scholarly body that aims to clarify, modernize, and otherwise improve American law. The Model Penal Code is its seminal work in the area of criminal law. It doesn’t have the force of law by itself, but it’s influential. Most states have used it in passing their own laws, and courts cite to it often.

The new provisions would require you to prove, by clear and convincing evidence, that a collateral consequence of your conviction imposes a heavy burden on your ability to rejoin society and that public safety doesn’t need you to suffer it.

If you do that then a court could relieve you from that burden. A court could even issue a certificate of rehabilitation that shields employers, landlords, or others who give you a second chance from civil liability.

Already, state legislatures have been proposing and passing laws to give people a fair shake to prove themselves before dismissing them based on the past.

Hopefully, that momentum keeps building. We should consider what it means to have a record, anyway, when most people either have one, know someone close to them who does, or would have one but for the grace of God. And we should consider how we judge people altogether in a world in which our every action can leave a permanent trace.

The twenty-first century may demand it.

The Lowdown on California’s Proposition 57

Last week it was Proposition 64; this week, it’s Prop 57.

Voters approved it by a wide margin, but what does it do?

Two things.

First, it amended the California Constitution to ensure parole eligibility for people who have been convicted of a nonviolent felony, once they have served the full term for their primary offense. In layman’s terms, that means that you’re eligible for parole once you’ve served the meat and potatoes of your sentence, even if you were sentenced to additional, consecutive time on lesser counts or for sentencing enhancements. But this just means you’re eligible; it doesn’t mean you get released. It just means you’ve got a shot at parole, and something to work toward. No one is automatically released, and no one is entitled to parole.

Second, Prop 57 mandates that a judge must always decide whether a minor age 14 or older should be prosecuted and sentenced in adult court. (Kids 13 and younger don’t go to adult court.) Before, you automatically went to adult court, even at 14, if you were charged with murder or an aggravated sex crime. Or the prosecutor could file your case directly in adult court if you were 16 or 17 and charged with a serious or violent felony or you were 14 or 15 and charged with an especially serious or violent felony. In all cases, the prosecutor could request the juvenile court to transfer your case to adult court, even for a misdemeanor.

Under Prop 57, there’s no direct filing of juvenile cases in adult court, and prosecutors have less discretion to request their transfer. For ages 14 or 15, they may request a transfer only if the kid is charged with a serious or violent felony. For ages 16 or 17, it can be any felony but not a misdemeanor.

Some things haven’t changed, like the criteria for deciding whether a minor’s case should be transferred to adult court. These include the following:

  • the nature and seriousness of the charges
  • the degree of criminal sophistication he displayed, given his age, maturity, intelligence, environment, and upbringing
  • his prior history of delinquency, if any
  • whether he can be rehabilitated by the time he comes of age or close to it

Reduce Your California Felony Conviction to a Misdemeanor

Can you do that? Yes, you can. Look up Penal Code Section 17(b) if you don’t believe us. You can also reduce certain felonies to misdemeanors under Proposition 47, and we wrote about that previously here.

Under Section 17(b), you can even reduce your felony to a misdemeanor long after you’ve served out your sentence. If you haven’t considered it, you should. If you’re currently facing felony charges then you can try reducing them at your preliminary hearing or at sentencing, but you should talk to your lawyer about that.

Once you reduce your felony to a misdemeanor, it’s considered a misdemeanor from that point on (with some exceptions). Then you can legally and truthfully say that you have not been convicted of a felony when you go about your business or apply for loans, housing, employment, or professional licenses or credentials (again, with exceptions). One big exception? It won’t relieve you from having to register as a sex offender.

To be eligible, you must meet two criteria. First, your felony must have been a wobbler, meaning it could’ve been charged as a felony or misdemeanor. If you were convicted of a straight felony then you’re out of luck. Second, the court must have put you on probation but without actually imposing a felony sentence. This is important, too. It’s not enough if the court imposed a sentence but suspended its execution in favor of probation; it must not have imposed a felony sentence at all. So if you were sentenced on the felony then you’re out of luck even if the court suspended its execution and put you on probation.

Bottom line: You are eligible if you were convicted of a felony that could’ve been charged as a misdemeanor and the court put you on probation without imposing a felony sentence.

How will a court decide your motion? By analyzing the same factors that guide other sentencing decisions. These include the facts of the case; the nature of the offense; your personal history and characteristics; and how well you did or have done on probation.

 

If Prison Walls Could Talk

Here’s an interesting story about a just-released report on prison reform, with a kick: it’s written by the prisoners.

The authors are five inmates, all first-time offenders, who have spent a combined 95 years in the Texas prison system.

They write from their own experiences and those of others, but many of their observations apply across the country. They write about food, medicine, discipline, parole, programming, solitary confinement, and other things. And they write well.

Here are six examples to give you a flavor. Even if we don’t adopt every suggestion, doesn’t it make sense to listen?

The intake process. It ought to help steer people toward reform and rehabilitation, but it doesn’t. Instead, it degrades them and strips them of their dignity. Sometimes, new arrivals are greeted with words like, “Welcome to hell,” and then treated accordingly. Staff may yell obscenities in their ear throughout the process, among other things. This routine demands submission but discourages rehabilitation. It isn’t necessary and doesn’t comport with the state’s mission statement.

The commissary. Stock it appropriately to reduce the black market for goods that inmates otherwise steal from the kitchen or laundry at taxpayers’ expense. Stock it with healthier foods, including fruits and vegetables, and inmates will eat them. Don’t worry about their making wine out of the fruit because they’re making the wine, anyway. “[They] make wine without fruit by using fruit juice, mint sticks, raisins stolen from the kitchen, and other black-market items procured in prison. Trying to eliminate the exceptional activities of a few by prohibiting healthy items for all serves no purpose. The wine is still being made!”

Computers and technology. Expand inmates’ access to it. You can monitor and regulate their use, but keeping them from it only impedes their successful reentry into society. “When an inmate is released, they should be familiar with the technology they are expected to interact with on a daily basis.”

Visitation. Expand visiting hours and improve the experience. Don’t make it more difficult or unpleasant for people. Nurture the bonds that inmates have with their loved ones. Don’t fleece them with surcharges on phone calls and emails.

Differences among staff. Bad officers create hostile work environments for other officers and foster bad behavior among the inmates. Good officers try to treat inmates with respect and make the prison safer for staff and inmates alike. They view inmates as people who are worthy of respect and who will one day rejoin society.

Reward good behavior. Don’t just punish bad behavior. “Giving inmates the ability to set themselves apart … would give an inmate a reason to care about his future; it would give him hope that his future can be different; and giving inmates hope about a better future will change the culture of the prison system.”

 

A Penny For Your Thoughts, Judge

Thank God we live in a country whose leaders speak like this. What if they didn’t, or couldn’t?

In this case, maybe it’s because the speaker, Alex Kozinski, a prominent federal judge, was an immigrant born behind the Iron Curtain, the son of two Holocaust survivors who came here when he was twelve. Maybe we value the rule of law more viscerally when we’ve seen firsthand—when we know and understand—what government is capable of.

In any event, Judge Kozinski sat down recently for an interview on criminal law and justice, and it’s riveting. Courtesy of the Washington Post, the interview is split into five short video clips on the topics below. I’ve excerpted some of his comments here, but each clip is only one or two minutes long, and they’re worth watching and listening to.

On police militarization and surveillance. “I somehow got on a law-enforcement mailing list. I don’t know whether they send this to all judges, but I do get these catalogues that show all the equipment that they make available for the police. And my word, those things really look like they belong in the military…. It’s important to fight crime, it’s important to fight terrorism, and we certainly rely on police to do many things that, God knows, most of us would not want to do. So I think we should be very grateful to the police for being willing to put themselves out there in harm’s way on our behalf, but I think there is such a thing as too much. There is such a thing as being too zealous and entrenching on people’s freedoms. We do not want to live in a militarized society.”

On redemption and rehabilitation. “So … we have made it much easier to keep track of people and to have the past revealed, and in some cases that’s justifiable for the protection of society. But I think we have gone too far. I think there’s such a thing as privacy. There’s such a thing as forgiveness. There’s such a thing as giving people truly a clean break to remake their lives. And our system tends to pull them back, tends to pull them down. And basically says you’ll never get away, you will never have a normal life again. And I think that’s too bad. I don’t think that’s a society we want to live in. I think … we have traditionally believed in the concept that people can reform toward good. They’re not inevitably evil, and they’re not forever evil. And that concept seems to be dwindling, and I’m sorry to see it go.”

On guilty pleas and false confessions. “Well there are many reasons somebody may plead guilty, even though there may be doubts, or even though they may be innocent. One of the principal reasons is that, often, there are very serious charges laid on by the government and going to trial is so risky that taking a guilty plea on something that is much less seems the only rational choice. Because if you go to trial and lose, you’ll never see the light of day. There are also many cases where people are interrogated by the police for a very long time, and they wind up giving confessions—confessions that turn out not to be true…. DNA proves it, witnesses prove it, somebody else was out there. But the police managed to extract a confession. Well, once you confess to the police, any lawyer will tell you it’s very hard to persuade the jury that you are not guilty. So people may take a guilty plea in that kind of situation just because they think they have no hope of being acquitted, and the guilty plea at least gives them some measure of hope that they will someday see the light of day.”

On overcriminalization. “As the law gets more complex and as more things are criminalized and as more statutes are added, the line between what is criminal and what is not criminal becomes very blurry. Oftentimes you don’t know that something is criminal or you don’t imagine that something is criminal until you get charged with a crime…. Now I don’t think we ought to be charging things that are not clearly crimes. Criminal prosecutions ought not to be an invention. People ought to be charged for crimes for things that are clearly criminal. Not things that a prosecutor can imagine might be a crime.”

On punishment and mandatory-minimum sentences. “One of the things I suggest is that … the jury be consulted. And that right now, in most places in the United States, except in the case of capital cases, the juries have no idea when they convict as to what the likely or the possible sentence would be. I think that’s sort of a mistake. I think we ought to let juries know whether they are weighing the facts and deciding whether someone is going to go to prison two or three years or whether he is going to go to prison likely for the next twenty or thirty years. In life, we don’t make decisions in the abstract. We always know the consequences, we weigh the consequences of the decision. It seems to me the jury ought to be informed, the jury ought to have a say in what the sentence should be.”

The Mercy Project

Life is fragile. We sometimes forget that, but we remember quickly when we lose something or someone important to us. We often forget it because, in the developed world, we tend to live longer and better than people ever have. We forget that, even in our own country, not everyone lives (and has lived) as we do.

Last Friday, President Obama granted mercy to 95 people who may have died in prison otherwise. The President granted them executive clemency and commuted their sentences so that they may be able to go home in the next year or two. Most had been sentenced to life in prison or to extremely long, nearly-life sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. Many had already served twenty years or more in prison.

Each of these people met six criteria that the Justice Department has outlined for consideration of clemency petitions:

  1. They are serving a federal prison sentence that would likely be substantially lower if they were convicted of the same offense today.
  2. They are nonviolent, low-level defendants without significant ties to gangs, cartels, or other large-scale criminal organizations.
  3. They have served at least ten years of their sentence already.
  4. They have no significant criminal history.
  5. They have demonstrated good conduct in prison.
  6. They have no history of violence before or since their imprisonment.

For people who meet these criteria, six leading civic organizations have partnered to help them petition for clemency. The six are the American Bar Association, the American Civil Liberties Union, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and the Offices of Federal Public Defenders.

Their collaboration, the Clemency Project, has produced an impressive, volunteer effort by the country’s legal profession to review case files and to prepare clemency petitions for those who deserve it. Of the 95 petitions that the President granted last week, the Clemency Project was responsible for 27 of them.

But they need more help, so if you’re a lawyer, please consider taking on just one case for the public good and the cause of justice. If you’re a criminal defense lawyer, that’s even better, but lawyers from any practice area are welcome, and the Project will guide and support you so that you don’t have to worry about what you don’t know.

You may even help someone come home for Christmas who thought they never would again.

Out of the Mouths (or Lives) of Babes

If you’re on probation, can the court require you to surrender your passwords to your electronic devices and social-media accounts, so they can be searched at any time?

California has been weighing that question lately, and one month ago, the Court of Appeal issued decisions in two separate juvenile cases—one with a girl and one with a boy—that help shed light on the answer.

For starters, courts have plenty of discretion in formulating probation conditions, and when it comes to kids, they have even more latitude than they do with adults because kids need more guidance and supervision, and their rights haven’t ripened to maturity.

The final analysis, however, is the same for kids or adults: A probation condition is invalid if it’s not reasonably related to any of the following: (1) your underlying crime; (2) conduct that is criminal in itself; or (3) conduct that makes it more likely you’ll commit more crime. See People v. Lent (1975) 15 Cal. 3d 481, 486; In re D.G. (2010) 187 Cal. App. 4th 47, 52-53 (applying Lent to juvenile probation conditions).

First, the girl’s case. It began one day when she was meeting with her school counselor, who thought she was high on something because she was acting fidgety and her pupils were dilated. After their meeting, the girl left her purse behind, so the counselor opened it and found a sandwich bag of 30-45 orange pills. The counselor took one of the pills before the girl came back for her purse, and the pill later tested positive for amphetamine.

Subsequently, the girl admitted to misdemeanor possession of ecstasy, and the court put her on probation, which included drug testing as well as searches of her person, room, vehicle, and property.

She didn’t fight those conditions, but another one was that she submit to searches of her electronic devices and surrender her passwords to them. The probation office hadn’t recommended that, and the girl objected to it, but the court wouldn’t budge.

On appeal, however, the court struck that condition because there was nothing in the record that tied the girl’s drug possession to her use of electronic devices. The government argued that she could’ve used her devices to sell the pills, but there was no evidence she ever did that. Since her use of electronic devices was not criminal in itself, and it bore no reasonable relationship to her risk of getting in trouble again, the court struck the condition.

Next, the boy’s case. It began one night when he and his friends robbed and assaulted three different people. The boy was already on probation because of a prior robbery, and he admitted the new violations. The court ordered him detained, and it also ordered all his probation conditions to remain in place, including existing search conditions for his person, room, vehicle, and property. The prosecutor then suggested an additional search condition for his electronic devices, and the court agreed, ordering the boy to submit to searches of his electronic devices and social-media accounts and to turn over all his passwords.

On appeal, the court agreed that the boy, who’d stolen cell phones in the past, would need to submit to searches of devices found in his possession to confirm that he owned them.

But the court stopped short of permitting unfettered searches of the devices he did own or requiring him to give up his social-media passwords. That was a step too far because there was no evidence that the boy used email, text messaging, social media, or other personal data to facilitate his criminal activity, and his personal data implicated not just his privacy rights but those of other kids and people who were not subject to court supervision. So the court modified the electronics-search condition accordingly.

Parole and Realignment in California

Want to know about parole in California?

Well, it’s complicated because the law changes all the time in all kinds of ways, and it recently changed in a big way on October 1, 2011 when the Criminal Justice Realignment Act went into effect. Actually, the new law kind of changed everything. The purpose was to reduce the state’s prison and parolee populations and to shift some of the burden of housing and supervising them to the counties. The law responded to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in 2011 that California’s prisons were so overcrowded—at nearly 200% of their capacity—that they violated the Eighth Amendment. The Court ordered the state to reduce its prison population to 137.5% of capacity, and the Realignment Act followed.

Parole, as you may know, is not quite the same as probation. Since the late 1970s, parole in California was a form of supervision that followed the end of your felony prison sentence. It was administered by parole agents or officers who were employed by and reported to the state’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Probation, on the other hand, was (and still is) a form of supervision that’s a part of your sentence, whether on a felony or misdemeanor. Probation reduces or replaces the amount of time that you may otherwise have to spend in custody, and it’s administered by the court or its probation department.

Since realignment, however, these two concepts have sort of converged because, for some felonies, you now serve your sentence in the county jail rather than state prison, and depending on where you go, you can now be paroled to the state or the county or not at all.

Here’s how it works. If you’re convicted of a non-violent, non-sexual, and non-serious felony then you generally will serve your time in the county jail, not the state prison, and if you’re sentenced to serve out your full term, then you’re released afterward without parole. Or, in such “non-non-non” cases, the court may split your sentence so that you serve part of it in the county jail and the rest on a form of parole that’s now called “mandatory supervision,” where you’re supervised by the county probation department, not the state department of corrections. On the other hand, if you’re convicted of a violent or serious felony or have such priors on your record, or if you’re deemed a high-risk sex offender or mentally-disordered offender, then you will still serve your time in state prison and be supervised afterward by the state’s parole authorities. And if you end up in state prison but don’t have such problems, then you will serve out your time and be released to the supervision of the county in what’s now called “post-release community supervision,” unless you’re already on parole from before October 1, 2011, in which case you remain under the supervision of the state.

Ratings and Reviews

The National Trial Lawyers
Mani Dabiri American Bar Foundation Emblem