NY Judge Says Long-Term Impact of Felony Conviction is Punishment Enough, Gives Drug Offender Probation over Prison

Judge Frederic Block. Official portrait

Judge Frederic Block. Official portrait

A Brooklyn federal judge urged lawmakers Wednesday to consider the long-term impact of felonious convictions for drug offenders when he sentenced a convicted drug offender to probation over prison time, The New York Times reports.

District Judge Frederic Block issued a 42-page opinion on the case of Chevelle Nesbeth, a 20-year-old Black woman arrested with 600 grams of cocaine in her luggage at JFK International Airport in New York City last year.

Block said judges and attorneys have failed to address the “devastating” collateral consequences — lack of employment opportunities and ineligibility for public housing and other social services — faced by convicted felons in this country.

Block argued these consequences only serve to further punish defendants long after they have completed their court-appointed sentences.

He acknowledges the “disastrous” effects of improper housing could result in loss of child custody or homelessness, which leads many ex-convicts to return to a life of crime “restarting the criminal cycle.”

Nesbeth was convicted of illegal possession with intent to distribute and faced 33 to 41 months in prison. Block sentenced her to one year of probation, six months of house arrest and 100 hours of community service.

Gabriel Chin, professor of law at the University of California, Davis, said the decision was by far “the most careful and thorough judicial examination” on the issue.

“It’s going to generate debate on a critical issue in the criminal justice system — the ability of people convicted of crimes to get on with their lives,” Chin said.

Block urged Congress and state legislatures to carefully examine the necessity of these post-sentence punishments and to “take a hard look at whether they do the country more harm than good.”

The lengthy opinion supports a large body of research on the criminal justice system’s role in compounding institutional barriers for African-Americans. Incarceration has been shown to have a disproportionate harmful effect on Black people economically, socially, politically and health-wise.

One in three Black men in the United States can expect to spend time in prison in his lifetime, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Black women are three times more likely than white women to be incarcerated.

Things don’t improve upon release, when Black former inmates encounter wage disparities. Wages for Black ex-convicts grow at a 21 percent slower rate than that of white ex-convicts.

Many states have introduced statutory bans preventing those with certain convictions from working in industries like child care, home health care and nursing — three sectors that employ women of color at disproportionate rates.

The Sentencing Project estimates that nearly 6 million Americans are banned from voting due to laws against convicted felons. One out of 13 African-Americans has lost the right to vote because of felony disenfranchisement policies.

Maine and Vermont are the only states in the union with no restrictions on voting rights for those with felony convictions.

Republican legislators in Virginia are currently battling Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who signed an executive order in April that restored voting rights to over 200,000 convicted felons. One in four African-Americans in the state had been barred from voting due to felon disenfranchisement provisions.

And in the U.S., felons cannot seem to escape their rap sheets. The 2001 Patriot Act opened records access to an unprecedented amount of government agencies. An endless supply of online vendors have made it easier than ever for employers, housing officials and laypersons to search arrest and court records.

All of these factors indicate the power felony convictions continue to hold over ex-inmates years after incarceration.

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