More judges like this, please

Love this story of a truly sensible judge’s response to one case in the war on drugs.  Via the New Yorker:

Chevelle Nesbeth was nineteen when she was arrested at John F. Kennedy International Airport, last year, for smuggling about 1.3 pounds of cocaine into the United States. At a boyfriend’s request, she had visited Jamaica, where she was born. Friends there, who had purchased her round-trip airline ticket, asked her to bring two suitcases to someone in the U.S. The drugs were in the handles of the luggage. She said she didn’t know they contained drugs, but there was enough evidence to contradict her story beyond a reasonable doubt. A jury in a Brooklyn federal district court convicted her of felonies for importation and possession of cocaine, with intent to distribute…

Last week, Senior District Judge Frederic Block drew attention by giving her a sentence without time in prison, though federal sentencing guidelines pointed to a term of thirty-three to forty-one months behind bars. Block wrote in hisopinion, “Her crimes were certainly a marked deviation from an exemplary law-abiding life; she has worked in meaningful jobs; she has a record of prior good works counseling and tending to young children; she apparently was under the influence of her boyfriend, and there is no evidence that she was even to be paid for her crime or was motivated by financial gain.” …

But the bulk of his opinion—the reason federal judges throughout the country have been sending it to one another as a cutting-edge view on an important issue in sentencing—is about why he “rendered a non-incarceratory sentence.” He wrote that it was largely “because of a number of statutory and regulatory collateral consequences she will face as a convicted felon”—restrictions that the federal government, as well as every state government, imposes on anyone convicted of a crime, but especially a felony. A broad range of the restrictions, he said, “serve no useful function other than to further punish criminal defendants after they have completed their court-imposed sentences.”

Block asked the U.S. Attorney’s office and the Federal Defenders of New York, which represented Nesbeth, to provide him with a list of the collateral consequences that she faces as a convicted felon. The government identified what it described as the “handful” that are “potentially relevant.” The loss of a driver’s license is the least onerous. She is also ineligible for student grants, loans, or work assistance for two years, and banned for life from receiving food stamps and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, though Connecticut could grant her an exemption. She and her family can be denied federally assisted housing for a “reasonable time,” and she cannot be issued a passport until her probation is finished, which matters to Nesbeth because, as her lawyer told the judge, her “father, grandmother, and extended family all reside abroad.”

The judge recounted that federal law imposes considerably more than a handful of consequences, “nearly 1,200 collateral consequences for convictions generally, and nearly 300 for controlled-substances offenses.” …

The main conclusion of the judge’s opinion is that, while the law allowed him to take account of the civil penalties when he sentenced her, there was nothing he could do to protect her from them. He joined criminal-justice experts in encouraging Congress and state legislatures “to determine whether the plethora of post-sentence punishments imposed upon felons is truly warranted,” and suggested that they do the country “more harm than good.” He didn’t say so, but for many legislatures that would mean carefully assessing these punishments for the first time…

The judge made clear why the severity of collateral consequences—authorizing discrimination in education, employment, housing, and many other basic elements of American life—means that anyone convicted of a felony is likely to face an arduous future. This predicament has been called modern civil death, social exclusion, and internal exile. Whatever it is called, its vast array of penalties kicks in automatically with a conviction, defying the supposedly bedrock principle of American law that the punishment must fit the crime.

Our war on drugs is so wrong in so many ways.  At least more and more people are getting it.  Judges are getting it.  Time for Congress and state legislators to get it.


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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