Prisoners are persons whom most of us would rather not think about. Banished from everyday sight, they exist in a shadow world that only dimly enters our awareness. They are members of a "total institution" that controls their daily existence in a way that few of us can imagine. "[P]rison is a complex of physical arrangements and of measures, all wholly governmental, all wholly performed by agents of government, which determine the total existence of certain human beings (except perhaps in the realm of the spirit, and inevitably there as well) from sundown to sundown, sleeping, walking, speaking, silent, working, playing, viewing, eating, voiding, reading, alone, with others. . . ." It is thus easy to think of prisoners as members of a separate netherworld, driven by its own demands, ordered by its own customs, ruled by those whose claim to power rests on raw necessity. -- Justice William Brennan, dissenting in O’Lone v. Estate of Shabazz, 482 U.S. 342, 354-55 (1987).

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Is Ted Stevens a Convicted Felon or Not?

Ted Stevens, the 84-year old Republican Senator from Alaska, was recently convicted of 7 felony counts of lying on federal disclosure forms. (The media has inaccurately been saying that he was convicted of corruption but the prosecutors did not allege that any bribery, blackmail, or favors were involved in the receicing of the gifts.... they simply claim he intentionally did not disclose the gifts, which primary involved improvements to his home.)

However, Ted Stevens has been claiming that he is NOT a convicted felon.

So which is it? Is he a convicted felon or not?

Yes. :)

He was convicted by a jury but the conviction is not final until all appeals have been exhausted and the judge sentences the defendant. It is the issuance of the Judgment and Commitment after sentencing that establishes the conviction. (By the way, that is also why Kenneth Lay, of Enron, had his sentence vacated when he died before being sentenced.)

So, does this mean Ted Stevens was allowed to vote (see here also) in his own Senate race for re-election (which he appears to have won by the way -- there is no restriction on a felon serving as a Senator, although if his appeals fail, it is possible the Senate will remove him)?

Actually, yes.

I had the same thing happen to me in 2006. On October 13, 2006, three weeks before the mid-term elections, I entered a guilty plea and was scheduled to be sentenced in January, 2007.

I asked my lawyer if I was allowed to vote. She didn't know and asked the prosecutor. He said he does not notify the board of elections until after sentencing and that it is ok for me to vote because I was not yet a convicted felon, despite my guilty plea. Therefore Stevens was legally allowed to vote.

In any case, Stevens has significant grounds for appeal. Unfortunately, most citizens don't pay attention to details on matters like this and automatically assume he's a crooked politician and that the prosecution wears the white hat.

Not so fast.

There was significant prosecutorial mischief and even misconduct (see here also) in this case that form the basis for an appeal. Despite the convictions (which are exceedingly easy to get in federal court), the charges were relatively weak. Stevens was NOT charged with corruption, merely not reporting the gifts. He is guilty of a procedural, not a substantive, sin. It is a problem of appearance. The idea that someone could be a convicted felon and spend time in prison for not reporting something is just silly, especially since no one is alleging that anyone was harmed (except the intangible claim that "the people" are entitled to know who is giving stuff to their elected leaders). I don't think people pay enough attention to these things to know how really trivial this case was.

While Stevens apparently, according to Colin Powell, has a "sterling" reputation, he was combative and aggressive while on the stand, an approach that probably didn't serve him well. After 40 years in the Senate, he is used to having things his way and didn't much appreciate the female prosecutor questioning his integrity.

Again, a situation in which an unsympathetic, powerful, celebrity defendant is aggressively (to the point of abuse) prosecuted for relatively minor charges.

Personally, I hope he wins his appeal but I'm not holding my breath.

Voting Rights and Felons

As I have discussed before, felons have limited voting rights. The precise restrictions vary from state to state (see this document for list of state rules). There are only two states who permanently disenfranchise felons -- Kentucky and Virginia. Florida was in the same group but changed their policy last year.

Most states, including North Carolina where I live, allow felons to re-register to vote once they have completed all terms of their sentence. In my case, that means when I complete my term of supervised release, I can re-register to vote. For some felons, however, huge fines (e.g. white collare fraud defendants) with no hope of ever fully repaying mean that they will never fulfill the terms of their sentence, thereby, effectively disenfranchising them permanently.

Yesterday, my wife voted and noted that my name was still on the voting roster (since the names are listed alphabetically when the poll-working marks you off, she was able to see my name). I had been informed that the prosecutor in Philadelphia was supposed to send my judgment document to the state election board, who is to remove me from the list.

I called my probation officer and asked him if I was allowed to vote since my name was still on the list. I figured that it is the state's job to prevent me from voting and if, by oversight, they left me on the role, then I get to vote. My PO nixed that thought really quick. While not knowing why my name was still on the roster, he said I would get in trouble if I voted. Sigh!

Just as well. I am a life-long Republican and have NEVER voted for a Democrat. This year, however, I was tempted and I STILL don't know who I would have voted for. I am so disappointed in my party and I like about 80% of Obama, but I disagree with him on some very fundamental values and principles.

So.... I'm glad I had an excuse to sit this one out :)

Low Intensity Supervised Release

Several weeks ago, my supervised release status was changed to "low intensity." I still must abide by the terms of supervised release but the manner in which my compliance is monitored has changed.

Previously, I saw my Probation Officer once a month (he usually stopped by my house... a home visit) and filed a written report at the beginning of each month. For most people, the written report is a simple one page (front and back) document that takes 5 minutes to fill out. However, because I am self-employed, I had to provide more detailed financial details -- usually about 12 pages worth -- which took me a couple hours to compile.

Now, I simply call into a compliance reporting system at the beginning of each month, enter my PACTS NUMBER (I don't know what PACTS is an acronym for) and record my responses to several questions. It takes less than two minutes (I submitted my report on Monday).

I had to appear at the Probation Office last month to set up the system, which involved recording the phone number I would be calling in from in addition to recording several phrases which are used for voice identification. In other words, the combination of phone number and voice identification authenticates that I am in fact the person submitting the report instead of having someone else do it for me.

I have also been assigned a new probation officer who handles the low intensity program, although she just had a baby yesterday so I don't know who my new PO is :)

In any case, the low intensity program removes the only real inconvenience of being on supervised release. I still have to get permission to leave the district and abide by the other terms but those are not difficult.