Friday, October 26, 2012

The Cautionary Instruction: Pennsylvania slow to address collateral sanctions

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/Ipso Facto
October 26, 2012

In Pennsylvania, collateral sanctions are making it difficult for some formerly incarcerated offenders to find a job.

What are collateral sanctions? Some are government-imposed, others are the product of the stigma attached to being a “convict” -- both are barriers to successful reentry.
Felonies, and even some misdemeanors, eliminate offenders from consideration for various types of employment. In Pennsylvania, there are at least 55 occupations in which some people with criminal records are barred.

Criminal records are easily available to potential employers, landlords and other members of the community. As a result, ex-offenders are frequently denied access to employment, housing and other community resources.

In many instances collateral sanctions are the most significant consequence of a conviction. On average, about 60 percent of those convicted of felonies are not sentenced to prison. In a high percentage of cases, the real hardship is not the fine or incarceration, but the change in legal status brought about by a conviction.

This week, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers launched a website directory of laws in each U.S. jurisdiction relating to collateral sanctions and the potential for relief from those sanctions. Last month, the American Bar Association rolled-out the National Inventory of the Collateral Consequences of Conviction, a state-by-state database of collateral sanctions.

In Pennsylvania, there are many obstacles but few opportunities for relief. A criminal conviction can result in losing the right to vote, disqualification from serving on a jury, obtaining a professional license, working with children or in health care or owning a gun.

The right to own a firearm may be restored in some instances by court order, generally 10 years after a sentence has been completed. The right to serve on a jury and hold public office are only restored by executive pardon and those are far and few.  In 2011, Pennsylvania received 526 applications for pardon, Gov. Tom Corbett granted 40.

In some limited situations expungement is available for "summary" offenses after five years, and for those aged 70 or older if the applicant has had no arrests for 10 years. Juvenile expungement may be available upon reaching age 18 after a five-year waiting period.

Some states have enacted more generous legislation to deter collateral sanctions. A new law in Ohio is eliminating employment barriers that commonly get in the way of ex-offenders trying to adjust to life on the street. Overcoming job-related obstacles is a key to successful reentry.

A new law in North Carolina also gives some felons a fresh start. The law signed by Gov. Bev Perdue provides for expungement of nonviolent felonies and misdemeanors after 15 years for those who have had no other convictions.

Pennsylvania legislators are not completely ignoring collateral sanctions. Last month, the Senate Judiciary Committee reported out S.B. 1220 that amends the Criminal History Record Information Act to permit the expungement of convictions for certain misdemeanors of the third and second degrees. 

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