What Happens When Your “Debt to Society” Can Never Be Repaid?

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What Happens When Your “Debt to Society” Can Never Be Repaid?

It is often challenging for convicted criminals to productively re-enter civic life. An incarceration or conviction, regardless of the degree of severity, can essentially become a life sentence.

Recently, in the case of Jane Doe v. United States, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that federal courts have no authority to expunge records of a valid conviction. More specifically, the Court further distinguished its precedent of holding the Court’s power to expunge arrest records following dismissal of charges.

In other words, an arrest record can be expunged, not the conviction itself—a small, yet important distinction.

Jane Doe v. United States 

Over a decade ago, a struggling woman got involved in an insurance fraud scam and stole $2,500. She was found guilty and served her sentence. After this ordeal, her difficulty making ends meet worsened; whenever an employer ran a background check, she would lose employment due to her record.

Languishing in this cycle, she sought help before Judge John Gleeson, and he expunged her record! However, the government quickly appealed the expungement, claiming that the Judge had no jurisdiction to expunge the record in the first place.

Ultimately, the Second Court of Appeals reversed Judge Gleeson’s expungement and further ruled that there will be no more expungements in New York.

Needed: An Alternative to Expungements

The case of Jane Doe perfectly exemplifies why an alternative to expungement is necessary in New York.

In response to this case, Attorney General Loretta Lynch stated, “Too often, Americans who have paid their debt to society leave prison only to find that they continue to be punished for past mistakes.”

People with criminal records often have difficulty:

  • Getting approved for student loans (diminishing the opportunity to further education);
  • Obtaining a driver’s license (making employment difficult to find and sustain);
  • Securing housing; and
  • Voting (specifically in states with stringent laws that preclude citizens with criminal records from taking part in community life).

In some past cases, Congress has allowed district courts to expunge the lawful conviction on the application of drug offenders who have been placed on prejudgment probation and were less than 21 years old at the time of offense. Moreover, Congress has authorized district courts to unconditionally discharge a youthful offender from probation—which automatically sets aside the conviction.

However, if Congress does not provide for expungement, there is no alternative process in New York State.

Many Questions Remain

Without the potential for expungement, salient questions persist:

  • How can people continue to live meaningful lives after they’ve paid their debt to society?
  • Why do we call it paying your debt to society if it’s going to be lifelong afterwards?
  • What is the point of punishment/probation if people cannot continue to live normal lives?

And perhaps, the most poignant of all: When does it end? 

Unfortunately, for many—until Congress creates a standardized system to permit expungement—the debt to society is never fully paid.

What circumstances do you think warrant expungement? If you have questions or concerns about your conviction and its effects on your life, you better call Saul at (212) 363-7701!



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