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New York Federal Judge Challenges Collateral Consequences

In a move The New York Times called “striking,” and Gabriel J. Chin, a professor at the University of California, Davis School of Law said was “groundbreaking,” U.S. District Court Judge Frederic Block sentenced a young woman in a drug case to probation rather than prison, issuing a 42-page opinion that outlined his call for reform of the collateral consequences faced by people with felony records.

Judge Block’s May 25, 2016 ruling noted that defendant Chevelle Nesbeth, who was 20 years old at the time of her conviction, will have to navigate nearly 50,000 federal and state statutes and regulations that impose penalties on felons, which, Block said, serve “no useful function other than to further punish criminal defendants after they have completed their court-imposed sentences.”

He wrote that collateral consequences such as the denial of government benefits, ineligibility for public housing, suspension of student loans and revocation or suspension of driver’s licenses, for example, may be “particularly disruptive to an ex-convict’s efforts at rehabilitation and reintegration into society” and often result in “further disastrous consequences, such as losing child custody or going homeless.”

Professor Chin said the judge’s opinion would “generate debate on a critical issue in the criminal justice system – the ability of people convicted of crimes to get on with their lives.” Former federal prosecutor Daniel C. Richman, who now teaches criminal law at Columbia University, added that “however laudable it is for the judge to highlight this problem, his decision can’t solve it, even for this defendant.”

Indeed, as Judge Block wrote, “While consideration of the collateral consequences a convicted felon must face should be part of a sentencing judge’s calculus in arriving at a just punishment, it does nothing, of course, to mitigate the fact that those consequences will still attach. It is for Congress and the states’ legislatures to determine whether the plethora of post-sentence punishments imposed upon felons is truly warranted, and to take a hard look at whether they do the country more harm than good.”

Nesbeth, who faced a prison term of 33 to 41 months after being caught with 600 grams of cocaine in her suitcase at Kennedy International Airport, will instead serve a year of probation that includes six months of home confinement and 100 hours of community service.

Judge Block’s ruling does not create a binding legal precedent for other courts, but may well serve as an important contribution to the growing national debate on criminal justice reform. It also spurred federal prosecutors to appeal his order imposing a term of probation rather than prison. See: United States v. Nesbeth, U.S.D.C. (E.D. NY), Case No. 1:15-cr-00018-FB; 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 68731.

Additional source: The New York Times

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Related legal case

United States v. Nesbeth