Saturday, May 26, 2007

A Federal Criminal Conviction – The Gift That Keeps On Giving

Washington, D.C. – Charles Rangel (D-NY) stated during the introduction of his "Second Chance Act for Ex-Offenders of 2007" (HR 623) that federal law literally drives good people into prison because a federal ex-offender is never given a chance to show rehabilitation.

Rangel's bill provides that a one-time, non-violent offender who has completed all provisions of his sentence, a year of community service and who possesses a proven record of no alcohol or drug dependence is allowed to present a case to the federal sentencing judge asking for an expungement of the criminal conviction for non-law enforcement purposes. In other words, the conviction is still known to law enforcement but the expungement gives the ex-offender a second chance to reclaim their life.

Additionally, if the ex-offender is ever convicted of any subsequent state or federal offense the benefit is negated and the prior conviction record can enhance any subsequent sentence as though the expungement never happened.

Practically all states have a procedure that allows ex-offenders to seek re-entry to society through their good works and continued civility.* Some states even allow a federal conviction to come within its curative statutes.

The federal government has no such framework and federal ex-offenders are perpetually doomed to being in a sub-caste of humanity that, according to Rangel, is perpetually denied educational, housing and social benefits otherwise available to all.

One group, The Rehabilitated Project (www.rehabilitated.org) is working to ensure passage of HR 623. Congressman Rangel stated, "I commend the Rehabilitated Project and thank you for building a coalition of supporters for H. R. 623, The Second Chance Act of 2007." He added, "I thank you for marshalling the voice of the American people on this critical issue. Giving ex-offenders a `Second Chance' is in line with our demand that all individuals strive to find ways to cultivate themselves into productive members of our society."

He added, "The reality is at present, upon release, there are limited prospects for persons with criminal records. Each time they acknowledge their criminal pasts when completing job applications, they are likely to be turned away. `Second Chance' would remove this huge barrier and lower rates of recidivism by offering these individuals real opportunities for gaining legitimate employment."

It is thus easy to see why there is such a high recidivism rate in the United States. Yet, there is no relief valve under federal law to allow re-entry into society even after years of civility and continued good works by the ex-offender. Not even a presidential pardon!

Pardons have been issued so stingily over the last 20 years that under the current administration only 19, on average, are given yearly. Were the same rate maintained as during the 1920's and 1930's, over a thousand federal ex-offenders would receive presidential acts of clemency each year.

So, what HR 623 is attempting to do is simply level the playing field between state and federal ex-offenders and others whose wrongdoing is known, but for one reason or another, have not been criminally charged as is commonly afforded to illegal aliens seeking entry to this country.

Nationwide every year thousands of licensed professionals such as doctors, lawyers, real estate brokers and the like, are brought before their licensing board for one wrongful deed, or another. Many times this wrongdoing passes the threshold of criminality; yet, due to circumstances and the fact that our criminal justice system is overcrowded, criminal charges are simply not brought."

The power to approve continued licensing, despite wrongdoing, was delegated to these boards under legislative schemes such as the California Administrative Procedures Act. This act originally was just a copy of the federal Administrative Procedures Act. What the federal act did was to relieve elected officials in the 1880's, and since, of the need to run the day-to-day affairs of the varied and many agencies which then were being first created and which had become so numerous as to be unmanageable by the elected officials alone.

As an example, some agencies in California have even codified exactly what steps and conduct need to be shown in order to be declared "rehabilitated" sufficiently to continue with the licensed activity, including religious or voluntary community-based services. Every state in the Union has similar acts allowing professionals guilty of wrongdoing to be administratively chastised, yet continue to practice under terms and conditions set by the licensing agency.
HR 623 does exactly the same thing. It simply relieves the White House of having to concern itself with its opinion poll rating for being "soft on crime" until the end of a term, which is certainly not fair and it is certainly not just. Additionally, it will relieve the executive office the shame and embarrassment of highly-publicized mass pardons that have occurred at the very midnight hour of some administrations.

Rangel's bill puts the duty of determining whether an ex-offender deserves to be re-admitted into society into the hands of federal judges who are by education, experience and calling eminently qualified to make judgments about who has proven, or not, their case; that is, after all, what they do every day. It also lays claim to the proposition that if the forgiven person, this person who is being given a Second Chance, errs again through willful wrongdoing all of clemency allowed by HR 623 will immediately disappear.

Congressman Rangel summed it all up when he said, "In this Congress, together we can actively work to remove this barrier to employment and give these individuals hope instead of limiting their aspirations to careers in crime."

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