Federal Judge Criticized for Handing Out Lenient Sentence

By David B. Le

A federal judge called for scrutiny of the effects of felony convictions, after he sentenced a woman in a felony drug case to probation rather than prison, reported The New York Times.

Being a convicted felon, the collateral consequences were enough, Brooklyn, N.Y., Federal District Court Judge Frederic Block said. The consequences have “no useful function other than to further punish criminal defendants after they have completed their court-imposed sentences.”

Arrested for 600 grams of cocaine at John F. Kennedy International Airport, Chevelle Nesbeth claimed she was unaware that the suitcase given to her by friends contained cocaine. Unpersuaded, the jury convicted Nesbeth of importing and possession of cocaine with the intent to distribute, The Times revealed.

The judge’s opinion is groundbreaking and “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,” said Gabriel J. Chin, a law professor at the University of California at Davis.

Nesbeth was sentenced to one year probation, six months of home confinement, and 100 hours of community services, The Times stated.

Convicted felons faced about 50,000 state and federal statutes and regulations, including being ineligible for public benefits, wrote Judge Block, in his 42-page sentencing opinion.

The collateral consequences are “particularly disruptive to an ex-convict’s effort at rehabilitation and reintegration into society,” and could result in many ex-convicts “becoming recidivists and restarting the criminal cycle,” explained Judge Block.

“However laudable it is for the judge to highlight this problem, his decision can’t solve it,” said former federal prosecutor Daniel C. Richman, who teaches criminal law at Columbia.

Yet, “It’s refreshing, really, to see a judge considering the ramifications that a lot of people don’t even know about, much less consider, when they think about a person being sentenced,” said Amanda L. David, a federal public defender, who represented Nesbeth.

On the other hand, the United States attorney’s office memo to the judge stated that the collateral consequences of Nesbeth’s convictions were necessary because of her “serious criminal conduct.” Moreover, the restrictions were “meant to promote public safety, by limiting an individual’s access to certain jobs or sensitive areas,” and “to ensure that government resources are being spent on those who obey the law,” The Times highlighted.

Judge Block, who served more than two decades on the federal bench, pointed out that it is for Congress and state legislatures “to determine whether the plethora of post-sentence punishments imposed upon felons is truly warranted, and to take a hard look at whether they do the country more harm than good.” Meanwhile, Judge Block also called other judges to consider the collateral consequences of a defendant at sentencing, reported The Times.

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