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Opinion: Collateral Consequences


Published May 21, 2014 at 9:00 a.m.

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If you are convicted of a criminal offense in the state of Vermont, you may never be issued a license to deal cars or livestock, work as a radiologist's assistant or set up a business at the airport.

Your landlord can legally evict you; a potential employer can reject you out of hand. If you were convicted of a violent or sexual crime, you will forfeit your inheritance.

You are not allowed to own a firearm or join the military. Federal law bars you from public housing and receipt of unemployment insurance, food stamps or Reach Up. You may be prohibited from fishing in a national park.

Numerous Vermont towns, including Brattleboro, Springfield and Winooski, don't want you in any civic office. Forget serving on a jury.

In one way, you're lucky to live in Vermont, because it is one of only two states — Maine is the other — that lets every eligible voter vote, including incarcerated felons. But if you move, you may lose that right; in three states felons' disenfranchisement is irrevocable.

These sanctions and disqualifications are not part of the sentence for the crime. They are what happen to the offender after he has paid the fine, served the time and completed probation or parole. They are called "collateral consequences of conviction," and, according to a national database compiled by the American Bar Association, Vermont imposes more than 300. The feds have 2,500 more.

Total them all up — from deportation for noncitizens to local bans on sex offenders distributing Halloween candy to children — and the ABA counts 38,000 such provisions nationally. Many are mandatory and permanent.

"If you look at each one of these, a lot of them make sense," says Burlington attorney Richard Cassidy, who, as an active member and incoming chair of the national Uniform Law Commission, has been pressing Vermont policy makers for years to address this issue. "But the people who face them. do not face each one; they face all of them," Cassidy says. "The state sets up a net of monofilament line that no one can see but that separates ex-offenders from living a normal life" — a home and a legitimate job, connection to family and community. "They can't get through it. Wherever they turn, there it is."

It is therefore heartening that the Vermont legislature this session passed the Uniform Collateral Consequences of Conviction Act. The law requires the state to compile and publish all these consequences and the court to inform criminal defendants pretrial of a number of them. Knowing how their lives could be ruined is likely to give pause to many people who'd otherwise plead guilty in trade for a lighter sentence.

Among criminal defendants, that means almost everyone. Overstressed courts, overworked public defenders and prosecutorial pressure, backed by the high risk of going to trial when long mandatory sentences loom, compel more than nine out of 10 criminal defendants to enter plea deals. The trial is virtually obsolete.

Besides warning defendants of the consequences that could await them with conviction, the UCCCA offers an eventual way out. At sentencing, the convicted person can ask the court to block some of the sanctions (say, loss of housing or an occupational license). And five years later, ex-offenders may apply for permanent restoration of their rights, presuming they've stayed on the straight and narrow.

That's the heartening part.

The disheartening part is that in the last week of negotiations, Senate Judiciary Committee chair Dick Sears (D-Bennington) introduced an amendment automatically excluding from relief those who've committed any of the 31 listed crimes in Vermont statute, as well as trafficking in significant quantities of drugs. That wipes out hope for a large portion of Vermont's criminal offenders.

Given that a bill Sears introduced two years ago was almost identical to this year's House Bill 413 — both let anyone seek relief and let the courts sort out who got it — it is clear that opponents, probably prosecutors, managed to twist some arms at the last minute.

In 2011, then-senator Vince Illuzzi (R-Essex-Orleans), an Essex County state's attorney, killed Sears' bill by threatening to introduce 41 amendments.

One group needed no amendment to be denied relief from the crippling strictures imposed by the state: Sex offenders were excluded in the original bill and in the national Uniform Laws Commission's model legislation on which it is based. By now it practically goes without saying that in legislation, government administration and the courts, a pervert deserves no mercy.

So it is additionally painful that the amended law also removes one of the small mercies that some Vermont legislators have safeguarded as the Sex Offender Registry has grown in size and scope: Vermont has explicitly prohibited the electronic posting of exact street addresses on its online Sex Offender Registry.

Until now. Now, along with names, physical descriptions, photographs, county residence and numerous other details, the state will post the exact addresses of certain sex offenders.

I am told this change simply fixes a technical error — somehow this bit of agreed-upon legislation never got written into statute in 2009. That section of the law also stipulates that the Department of Public Safety must present the legislature with a clean audit of the online registry before listing anyone's address. A 2010 review by the state auditor found the registry filthy with errors. That barrier may soon drop, however. New software is improving accuracy, and a clean audit is expected soon.

It's an awful irony: A law that begins to repair some of the damage inflicted by a regime of perpetual punishment is loading one more punishment onto ex-offenders who already live under restrictions far more onerous than those imposed on murderers.

As I have written before, research shows that sex-offender registration does not improve public safety or reduce recidivism, which is already low among this group. Public notification of released offenders' whereabouts not only does not protect the community; it puts registrants and their families at risk of harassment and vigilantism.

Indeed, last week in South Carolina, while Vermont's judiciary committees were negotiating that last amendment, Jeremy and Christine Moody — he with "Skinhead" tattooed across his throat, she smilingly telling reporters her marriage was a "fairy-tale" romance — pled guilty to the murder of registered sex offender Charles Parker and his wife, Gretchen.

Being led to the police car to begin her life sentence, Christine shouted, "Killing that pedophile was the best day of my life." She'd gladly do it again, she added. And she almost got to. When Christine and Jeremy were apprehended, he had the name of his next intended victim written on an envelope.

He also had the address, which appeared in the South Carolina Sex Offender Registry.

Decades ago, the American prison was reformed from the penitentiary — where congenital sinners went to repent and/or rot — to the "correctional" facility. The latter aimed to carry out the philosophy that wrongdoers were not fundamentally evil but could be rehabilitated to assume productive lives. Today's "corrections" system has been abandoning that vision of rehabilitation — cutting work, education and arts programs, imprisoning more juveniles and locking inmates in solitary confinement — even though every warden and judge knows that most inmates will eventually get out.

Meanwhile, the impenetrable web of post-penalty restrictions fulfills the bleak old prophecy that criminals are sinners, and sinners, by nature, will sin again — so why waste time and money trying to remake them?

Vermont, as the first state to enact a comprehensive Uniform Collateral Consequences of Conviction Act, is expanding its progressive policies of treating criminal offenders as what they also are — fathers, sons, lovers, artists, workers and community members. Champions of the law such as its lead sponsor, House Judiciary Committee clerk Suzi Wizowaty (D-Burlington), hope that the laws will make Cassidy's "net of monofilament line" visible to policy makers, judges and citizens and inspire us to begin unraveling it, strand by strand.

It's a shame that, at the same time, the state might be exposing some ex-offenders, Vermont's Charles Parkers, to the ultimate collateral consequence. m


— Poli Psy is a monthly column by Judith Levine. Got a comment on this story? Contact levine@sevendaysvt.com.