By Christopher Zoukis
Last year, Brooklyn-based federal district court judge John Gleeson wanted to help a woman he had sentenced her 14 years earlier on a federal criminal fraud charge (she had posed as an auto crash victim for an insurance fraud ring that faked accidents).
The woman (in her mid-50’s, a naturalized Haitian immigrant referred to only as Jane Doe) had earlier sought the judge’s help overcoming the obstacle her criminal record presented to her gaining steady employment. After her conviction, she studied nursing and avoided any further wrongdoing, but she said her conviction in 2001 prevented her from gaining steady work as a homecare aide. Employers would either refuse to hire her, or would discharge her after a criminal record check later turned up her record.
The first time Doe asked him to expunge her record, Gleeson had refused, saying federal courts reserve that rare remedy for wrongful convictions or serious miscarriages of justice. But when she came to court again to seek relief, the judge reviewed Doe’s nearly 1,000-page probation record, noted she had been the main support of four children, and despite her low, erratic income, had regularly paid towards the restitution he had ordered her to make. So last May, he declared the federal records of her conviction should be expunged – although conceding it was a nearly unprecedented order for a federal judge.
A strong believer in alternative sentencing, Gleeson — a former prosecutor who helped send mobster John Gotti to prison – observed he had sentenced Doe to home detention and years of probation, but not to a “lifetime of unemployment.” He noted Doe had lost half a dozen jobs after criminal record checks revealed her long-ago conviction, plus a growing national recognition that long-ago criminal convictions can too often have “excessive and counterproductive” effects for 65 million Americans with criminal records. But Loretta Lynch, now the U.S. Attorney General but then the top federal prosecutor for Brooklyn, objected to the order, and the issue of when a federal judge can expunge criminal records is unresolved; Doe’s case was recently argued before a federal appeals court in Manhattan.
So when Judge Gleeson had another ex-offender seek similar relief, then took a new tack. This March, he devised a new document, which he titled a “Certificate of Rehabilitation,” had it printed up on an impressive-looking paper, added a gold seal, his signature and that of another official, and awarded it to the new ex-offender. Other applicants should not plan on asking Judge Gleeson for similar certificates, however; two days after awarding the certificate, he left the federal bench after 22 years, joining a major New York City law firm.
While the newly-minted federal certificate is still one-of-a kind, Judge Gleeson may be on to something. Most states have procedures for expunging ex-offenders’ records for at least certain types of crimes, and more than a dozen states also allow prisoners who have successfully completed their sentences and any post-release supervision to seek certificates attesting to their rehabilitation.
Now, Attorney General Lynch is apparently planning to write state governors to suggest they have active programs offering such certificates to ex-prisoners re-entering society. No word yet if she plans to introduce a comparable program for federal prisoners.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com