The American Bar Association and a Justice Department unit have launched a new website that allows users to search federal and state laws that hinder people with criminal records from being able to do basic things — like finding work and obtaining housing — to be able to reenter society successfully.
During remarks at the site's launch yesterday on Capitol Hill, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) noted how vital it is to understand what these "collateral consequences" can mean for those who have been convicted of crimes.
"Somebody may lose their right to vote, they may lose their right to hold certain licenses to practice a profession, sometimes even lose the right of where they can live," Leahy said.
The website, run by the ABA and DOJ's National Institute of Justice, is meant to be a resource that allows users to search the collateral consequences they can face in their own state.
Margaret Colgate Love, a Washington-based lawyer and director of the ABA National Inventory of the Collateral Consequences of Conviction, used the example of a fictitious young man from Texas who wants to become an electrician. But the man is considering a guilty plea for a small drug crime. A search on the website shows that he is ineligible for an apprentice electrician license with any felony or misdemeanor conviction on his record.
For now, the website includes information on state laws in Vermont, Minnesota, Iowa, Nevada, Texas, Wisconsin, South Carolina and New York. The rest of the states will be entered over the next 18 months, administrators say.
Daryl Atkinson, a staff attorney with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, closed the event by noting his own personal example of collateral consequences.
Atkinson pleaded guilty to a non-violent drug crime in 1996 and served 40 months in prison. He has since become a champion for formerly incarcerated people and criminal justice reform.
The website, Atkinson said, "is literally lifting the veil on these invisible punishments. When I think about my personal experiences…40 months of incarceration was a blip on the radar screen of life. When I'm released I face this web of invisible punishments that I knew nothing about."
Atkinson said the website can be used as a tool to aid lawyers, "so they can give their clients a real true assessment of what their criminal justice involvement is going to be and the ramifications of that involvement."