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Dear President Obama

Dear President Obama, I am a criminal defense attorney, and at the prodding of one of my colleagues, Marjorie Peerce of Ballard Spahr, I have volunteered my time to screen clemency petitions through the Clemency Project, a project to provide free legal assistance to federal prisoners serving longer sentences than they would have received if sentenced today.  In this role, I review multiple clemency petitions and evaluate whether an executive summary should move on to the project’s steering committee.  It is overwhelming how many individuals are languishing in prison with life sentences who are low level drug offenders with no history of violence. Being a small part of helping to right the wrongs created through overcriminalization has been rewarding beyond belief. But it has also been a stark reminder of the injustice endured by so many of our nation’s prisoners. In my work with the Clemency Project, I agreed to prepare an executive summary to support a petition for clemency for an old CJA (Criminal Justice Act) client of mine who received a 200 month sentence for selling 58 grams of crack. The importance of this responsibility cannot be overstated.  It feels different than defending someone facing a charge – this is a person’s last chance in my hands. To get to know the personal story again behind this human being is both tragic and disturbing. He grew up with parents plagued by addiction and witnessed both his mother and father using cocaine in the family home from an early age.  His father died when he was twelve, a tragedy that sent him into a downward spiral.  He dropped out of school in the ninth grade and became so addicted to narcotics himself that, for the six years leading up to his arrest, he spent every day getting high on drugs to feed his crippling addiction.  Eight months after he was sentenced in this case, his mother died from HIV.  My heart broke when I discovered that, in the close to ten years he has been incarcerated, no one has gone to visit him. I wanted to get in my car and go visit him myself. The facts of the case and his criminal history don’t even begin to justify a double-digit prison sentence for a 23 year-old young man. I am disturbed and outraged at how our system has hurt this young man. All I can think about as I am finalizing the executive summary to submit to the Clemency Project is that my work is not enough. I am consumed with the thought that I must reach out directly to you, Mr. President. My hope is that I can express to you the magnitude of the injustice that occurred here, and that I can implore you to use your discretion to right this wrong.  My hope is that I can help you see what I see about this young humble and kind man who never had a chance in life to be more than a small time street level drug dealer. My fellow defense attorneys who’ve seen these kind of injustices might say that no one is ever going to see this letter, that it is a useless effort.  We know that we are up against steep odds whenever we represent a defendant charged with a drug offense.  We tell ourselves these are the crack guidelines, and we can’t change that.  We tell ourselves that this is a tough judge, and we can’t change that.  And in spite of our pleas for leniency or even just a fair sentence, we walk away having to swallow our outrage, understanding that we can only do so much to change the system. Our cynicism, shaped by years of injustice, makes us think that no one in power is ever going to care about the cause of an insignificant young man like my client, certainly not the President of the United States. I am writing to you, Mr. President, because I believe you do care. I have been troubled by this case for ten years and although I am grateful that, in your presidency, you have shown concern for these issues, I somehow want you to hear that a young man was designated a career offender for selling 58 grams of crack when he had previously been charged with having sold cocaine on only two prior occasions of such small quantities that in one instance he only made $15.00. And as this was unfolding, like in so many other cases, those entrusted as officers of the court stood by and acted as if it was normal and commonplace: simply our criminal justice system at work. I want to ask you to meet my client and learn the tragic story that brought him to where he now sits, in prison. I want you to be the one that finally visits this young man, not as a PR opportunity but to truly see him and talk to him. This act would serve as an acknowledgment that his life really does matter.  I want you to bear witness, with me, to the severity of what our criminal justice system did to him.  In my mind, this would be a meaningful step in repairing the injustice, which could change his life forever. The post Dear President Obama appeared first on Women Criminal Defense Attorneys.
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What Can and Cannot Be Expunged From Your Criminal Record?

It's welcome news to many criminal defendants that they can have their record expunged. While expungement might not be perfect -- most law enforcement agencies will still be able to see your arrest history and any convictions -- it means potential employers will have a harder time seeing your mistakes. But which mistakes are eligible for expungement, and which will remain on your permanent record? General Information For the most part, expungement eligibility is determined by the severity of the crime and the person's criminal record. State law can vary, but expungement is normally available for crimes committed as a juvenile and most misdemeanors, so long as you don't have an extensive criminal history. Also, expungement is usually a one-time deal -- if you're convicted of crimes committed after expungement, those are likely to stay on your record. Arresting Information Just because you've been arrested doesn't mean you're guilty. But a record of your arrest may pop up on a background check. Luckily most states will expunge an arrest record, especially if there was no conviction. And expungement can be part of a negotiated plea bargain. Getting rid of that online mug shot, however, might be a tougher task. Conviction Information If you've been convicted of a crime, whether you can clear your record will come down to state and local rules on expungement. Some states allow you to expunge a DUI conviction, some do not. This can come up especially if you're trying to expunge an out-of-state conviction. And some states are more likely to expunge a conviction after a certain amount of time has passed. No matter where you live, however, felony convictions are very difficult, if not impossible, to get expunged. The main criteria for most expungement decisions is the severity and nature of the event for which expungement is sought. Felony convictions normally involve more serious crimes, making them harder to get off your record. The expungement process can be complicated, and it certainly helps to have an experienced criminal law attorney on your side. If you have questions about your criminal record or want to have it expunged, contact one today. Related Resources: Find Criminal Defense Lawyers Near You (FindLaw's Lawyer Directory) The FindLaw Guide to Expungement (FindLaw PDF) Got Priors? How to Expunge Criminal Records (FindLaw Blotter) When Must You Disclose an Expungement? (FindLaw Blotter)
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Guest Post: Marjorie Peerce’s Commitment to Clemency Project Should Be an Inspiration to All

Every once in awhile, we meet people who truly inspire us to be better people and better lawyers. Marjorie Peerce is one of those people. As a partner in the New York office of Ballard Spahr she focuses her practice on white collar, regulatory and commercial defense. Yet since 2014, in addition to her busy practice, she has made time to work tirelessly to recruit and train volunteer lawyers to provide free legal assistance to federal inmates who may be eligible to have their sentences commuted or reduced by the President of the United States. Over 3,000 attorneys across the country have volunteered their time to work on this project, including 100 lawyers from Ballard Spahr. Every application submitted by Ballard Spahr is reviewed by Marjorie. She recently saw the first fruits of her labor and that of her colleagues when, on March 29, 2016, Obama granted clemency to 61 federal inmates, 25 of whom came through Clemency Project 2014 and two of whom were represented by Ballard Spahr attorneys. To put this in context, on April 23, 2014, former Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole announced the DOJ’s initiative to encourage qualified federal inmates to petition to have their sentences commuted or reduced by the President. Under the clemency initiative, the DOJ is prioritizing applications from inmates who meet the following criteria: • Currently serving a federal prison sentence and likely would have received a substantially lower sentence if convicted of the same offense today; • Non-violent, low-level offender without significant ties to large-scale criminal organizations, gangs or cartels; • Have served at least 10 years of their prison sentence; • Do not have a significant criminal history; • Have demonstrated good conduct in prison; and • Have no history of violence prior to or during their current term of imprisonment. Approximately 35,000 inmates responded to a Bureau of Prisons questionnaire indicating that they believe they meet the clemency criteria. After the clemency initiative was announced, the Administrative Office of Courts determined that inmates do not have a 6th Amendment right to counsel for the purpose of seeking clemency. As a result, federal money cannot be used to pay attorneys employed by the Federal Defenders or through the Criminal Justice Act to represent inmates under this initiative. In an effort to address the need for federal inmates to obtain legal assistance in submitting clemency applications, Clemency Project 2014 (“CP 2014)” was formed by lawyers from the Federal Defenders, American Civil Liberties Union, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the American Bar Association, and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (“NACDL”). CP 2014 lawyers screen inmate requests to determine if they meet the clemency criteria, assign a volunteer lawyer to prisoners who appear to qualify, then assist the inmate in filing the clemency request. To date, 250 clemency applications have been granted by the President; approximately 60 of those applications came through CP 2014. I spoke to Marjorie about the two individuals recently granted clemency by the President who had been assisted by Ballard Spahr attorneys. Kevin County, a 43 year old African American, was convicted in New Orleans for selling small amounts of crack cocaine and heroin. Because he had a prior felony conviction, he received a sentence of 20 years (240 months) in prison and has already served 167 months. He was scheduled for release in 2020. Under current law, Mr. County would have been sentenced to 70-80 months in prison. Last week, Marjorie, together with Joanna Jiang and Erica Leatham, the Ballard Spahr attorneys who worked directly with Mr. County, called Mr. County in prison to tell him that he had been granted clemency by the President and would be released in July. Mr. County’s response was simple but powerful: “God bless you! Thank you!” Marjorie spoke to the New York Times after the announcement and praised President Obama for commuting the sentences of 61 federal inmates including Mr. County and stated “[t]he war on drugs from the 1990s resulted in inordinately harsh and long prison sentences for offenders who did not deserve to serve that length of time.” The other Ballard Spahr client, Angela Laplatney, was represented by Ballard’s Salt Lake City office, including Blake Wade and Melanie Clarke, also received a grant of clemency from a 20 year sentence for selling methamphetamine in Wyoming. Ms. Laplatney had served over 10 years of her sentence and was scheduled to be released in 2022. She, like Mr. County, will be released in July. Marjorie is grateful to Ballard Spahr for supporting the work of CP 2014, and noted that “pro bono is ingrained in the DNA of the firm.” She likewise praised the work of her NACDL partners, Jane Anne Murray and Norman Reimer, who serve on CP 2014’s Steering Committee with her, through which they certify that applications submitted through CP 2014 meet the clemency criteria. Marjorie told me that in over 30 years of practicing law, her work with CP 2014 has been “the single best thing” she’s done. She is on a mission to help as many federal inmates as possible who are serving sentences that, under current law, are “obscenely severe.” The recent grants of clemency by the President have further fueled Marjorie’s drive to help these inmates, and there is no doubt that her efforts in recruiting, training, and mentoring volunteer attorneys will pay off and change the lives of people who, until now, have been resigned to spending many more years in prison. Marjorie’s enthusiasm for CP 2014 is contagious. Lawyers who, like Marjorie Peerce, are willing to give up some of their time to work on this project will cherish the rare opportunity to change lives. By: Sharon L. McCarthy Partner, Kostelanetz & Fink, LLP New York, New York The post Guest Post: Marjorie Peerce’s Commitment to Clemency Project Should Be an Inspiration to All appeared first on Women Criminal Defense Attorneys.
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Do I Have to Disclose My Criminal Record on Housing Applications?

Living with a criminal record isn't easy. It's harder to get a job and get into college, and a criminal conviction may even get you kicked off American Idol. All jokes aside, housing is one of our most basic needs, so can landlords refuse to rent to people with a criminal record? And do you have to explain a criminal conviction on a housing application? Public Housing While federal and state public housing authorities may not discriminate based on race, gender, religion, etc., they can absolutely consider criminal records when renting public housing. They can also consider new criminal convictions when deciding whether to evict an existing tenant. The only requirement is that public housing authorities provide a copy of the criminal record to the tenant or subject of the eviction notice. At that point, the tenant can dispute the accuracy of the record at a grievance hearing or a trial. Private Rentals Private landlords generally have more leeway when screening potential tenants, but in this case, state law may limit landlord actions. While landlords can refuse to rent to someone because of a criminal conviction, some states (like New York) prohibit landlords of buildings containing four or more apartments from having a blanket policy against renting to anyone with a criminal record. Make sure you're familiar with your state's laws on leases and rental agreements. Expungement One way of avoiding having to disclose a prior conviction is to get your criminal record expunged. Expungement rules vary from state to state, but generally an expungement will remove your criminal history from public view. If you are able to get your record expunged, a potential landlord won't be able to see your criminal history, and you won't need to disclose prior convictions or the expungement. If you've been denied housing due to your criminal record, you may want to talk to an experienced landlord-tenant attorney in your area. Related Resources: Browse Landlord-Tenant Lawyers by Location (FindLaw Directory) Do I Have to Hire a Felon? (FindLaw's Free Enterprise) Fair Housing Laws, Complaints, and Lawsuits (FindLaw) How to Get an Online Mug Shot Removed (FindLaw Blotter)
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