A former chief judge of the federal court in Brooklyn Thursday refused to expunge a 23-year-old fraud conviction of a woman who wants to be a nurse, but added his voice to a growing chorus calling for a new look at employment hurdles faced by ex-cons.
"Criminal records are remarkably public and permanent, and their effects are pernicious," said U.S. District Judge Raymond Dearie, ruling in a lawsuit filed by Joy Stephenson of Queens. "A criminal sentence too often becomes a lifetime of unemployment. It is time for a change."
Dearie sentenced Stephenson, then 25, to 6 months home confinement for bank fraud in 1993. Since then, he said, she has married, raised three daughters, got an associate degree in human services, kept her record clean and found steady work as a coordinator for a trauma team at a Long Island hospital.
She wanted the expungement to pursue a nursing license because it might be denied due to her record, wrote Dearie, but he said his hands were tied because Stephenson has a solid job, and even if she didn't, legal precedents have held that employment difficulties are not sufficiently "extreme circumstances" to justify expungement.
"Ms. Stephenson's case is certainly a sympathetic one, and I believe everything about her character suggests she is well-suited for a career in nursing, but based on the current state of the law . . . I must regrettably deny her petition," he said.
Dearie's rhetoric echoed a push by President Barack Obama and former Attorney General Eric Holder to increase funding and opportunities for re-employment of released prisoners.
The decision also came on the heels of a May ruling by one of Dearie's colleagues, Brooklyn U.S. District Judge John Gleeson, who broke with precedent and expunged the 2001 health care fraud conviction of a woman who struggled to get and hold jobs and keep her family afloat because of her record.
The government, which opposed Stephenson's request, has appealed Gleeson's ruling, arguing a judge shouldn't engage in "judicial editing of history" to nullify government's interest in accurate criminal records and state employment laws.
Dearie, like Gleeson, expressed frustration with lingering effects of convictions, noting employer biases, insurance risks and laws shutting off some jobs to ex-cons make work hard to find, while studies show unemployment makes reoffending more likely. He said in New York, state laws protect former offenders against discrimination and at least give Stephenson a chance to successfully apply for a nursing license. But nationally, he said, 65 million ex-offenders potentially suffer these adverse effects.
"Basic values and notions of fairness stemming from our nation's history animate the principle that individuals should be given an opportunity to start afresh or wipe the slate clean," he wrote. "Lately this has been a promise left largely unfulfilled."Stephenson could not be reached for comment.