Confronting Invisible Punishments: The Collateral Consequences Project

Friday, October 17, 2014

After people are convicted of crimes and serve their sentences, they often discover that there are a myriad of other, invisible consequences that flow from criminal convictions, including impacts on child custody, parental rights, access to employment and housing, and the accrual of debt. For noncitizens, there is a danger of post-sentence detention by immigration authorities, followed by deportation. Because of these hidden collateral consequences, even minor crimes can shatter families and hobble individuals.

In the Collateral Consequences Project (CCP), students in the Thomas & Mack Clinic are at the frontlines of innovating new ways for lawyers to help their clients understand these invisible punishments, to avoid them through creative plea negotiating, and to be better prepared for the challenges they will face after conviction. Working with the Clark County Public Defender and other community partners, Clinic students are positioned to not only learn how to practice law, but to change the way law is practiced. 

The Immigration Clinic has made the intersection of local criminal justice and federal immigration enforcement a primary focus. Clinic students consult with public defenders on cases involving immigrants to ensure that non-citizens know the immigration consequences of any plea bargain offered by prosecutors, and to help defense attorneys propose alternatives that meet the State’s objectives without a risk of deportation. Students in the Immigration Clinic have represented clients of the Public Defender in their immigration cases, and, as a pilot project this fall, are representing immigrants in misdemeanor cases in Las Vegas Justice Court.  Working with the National Immigration Law Center, students also helped persuade the Clark County Sheriff to change a policy that prevented immigrants from being released on bail. 

Students in the Family Justice Clinic (“FJC”) focus on the impacts of criminal convictions on custody and visitation, parental rights, and debt related to child support. FJC faculty and students conduct trainings with public defenders on family consequences, advise criminal defendants on family-related issues, and represent family members of incarcerated parents in guardianship proceedings. This fall students are developing checklists to help public defenders identify family issues for their clients at intake and sentencing, and creating handouts on modification of child support for clients who will be serving time. 

In spring 2015, FJC students will work directly with the Clark County Public Defender on mitigation and sentencing in cases involving family issues. The clinic will co-counsel with the special public defender on termination of parental rights cases involving prisoners. This partnership brings additional resources to families that face heightened challenges due to incarceration, and also exposes students to the nexus between the child welfare and criminal justice systems. 

Additionally, each semester FJC students teach classes at the Clark County Detention Center to provide vital information to prisoners regarding family law consequences of imprisonment and how to protect their rights.  To better understand the broad impact of criminalization in the Las Vegas region, the FJC has partnered with Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada to develop a comprehensive needs assessment survey of people with criminal convictions. This project will help identify the negative impacts of convictions on the community in an effort to develop better services and outreach. 

Traditional legal practice has not always dealt well with the interrelated nature of legal problems—especially those faced by poor people. The goal of the Collateral Consequences Project is to develop attorneys who are equipped to address the multiple and punitive ways in which legal systems intersect in poor people’s lives.