The Unforgiven

I’m just a plainspoken Colorado criminal defense lawyer, but the way I see it…

Some 65 million adults in the United States — one in every four Americans — have criminal records. For many of them, the fines they paid, the community service, classes and therapy they did, the time they spent in jail or prison, are just the beginning of their punishment. For some, the punishment never ends.

The direct consequences of criminal behavior (which may be murdering your romantic rival, but also may be stealing bread to feed your children) are straightforward; you can see them coming. But other, collateral consequences of conviction, you don’t see coming until you walk out of jail a “free” man or woman.

These include the fact that, after a conviction, you may never be looked at for the talents, intelligence, and ability you may bring to a job, but rather for this black mark you carry like a forehead tattoo.

After a conviction, you may be barred from a professional license, from opportunities available to others in housing, education, public benefits.

After a conviction, you may be denied credit, find it impossible to get a loan.

Welcome to America? Immigration status may be denied or revoked. Your legal right to be a father or a mother, curtailed or even gone. The list goes on, and it’s a long list.

The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL; I’m one of ‘em) would like to burn this list, for people who have paid for their crimes and shouldn’t have to keep paying for the rest of their lives.

NACDL recommends a broad national initiative to construct a legal infrastructure
that will provide individuals with a criminal record with a clear path to equal
opportunity. The principle that individuals have paid their debt to society when
they have completed their court-imposed sentence should guide this initiative. At
its core, this initiative must recognize that individuals who pay their debt are entitled
to have their legal and social status fully restored.

Here’s our ten-point roadmap to restore your rights and status (your basic humanity) after arrest or conviction:

1. The United States should embark on a national effort to end the second-class legal status and stigmatization of persons who have fulfilled the terms of a criminal sentence.

2. All mandatory collateral consequences should be disfavored and are never appropriate unless substantially justified by the specific offense conduct.

3. Discretionary collateral consequences should be imposed only when the offense conduct is recent and directly related to a particular benefit or opportunity.

4. Full restoration of rights and status should be available to convicted individuals upon completion of sentence.

5. Congress and federal agencies should provide individuals with federal convictions with meaningful opportunities to regain rights and status, and individuals with state convictions with mechanisms to avoid collateral consequences imposed by federal law.

6. Individuals charged with a crime should have an opportunity to avoid conviction and the collateral consequences that accompany it.

7. Employers, landlords and other decision-makers should be encouraged to offer opportunities to individuals with criminal records, and unwarranted discrimination based on a criminal record should be prohibited.

8. Jurisdictions should limit access to and use of criminal records for non-law enforcement purposes and should ensure that records are complete and accurate.

9. Defense lawyers should consider avoiding, mitigating and relieving collateral consequences to be an integral part of their representation of a client.

10. NACDL will initiate public education programs and advocacy aimed at curtailing collateral consequences and eliminating the social stigma that accompanies conviction.

And here’s how you can help: if you, or someone you know, have a story about how a plea or guilty verdict caused you to lose a right or privilege (or several rights and privileges) important to you, you can share that story here.

It doesn’t matter if you were guilty, less guilty, or not guilty at all but took the plea for other reasons, or were unfairly convicted. What matters is you’ve already paid your debt, and you and others should not have to keep paying it.

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One Response to The Unforgiven

  1. walli 4 June 2014 at 1:32 pm #

    I think this initiative is long-overdue. We have destroyed much of our nation’s human capital by forever branding a person with a criminal conviction. And that criminal conviction can also destroy a person’s hopes and dreams of becoming a productive citizen, tarnish their self-image and impose long-term collateral consequences for themselves and their families. It’s time to allow people a chance to overcome their mistakes and take off the sack-cloth and ashes.

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