Safe Surrender Brings Out the Best of Both Sides

As a believer in karma, I do not take pleasure in the misfortune of others, especially when that misfortune occurs on the legal professional stage. Yet when a prosecution mistake resulted in a mistrial in the Rogers Clemens case many weeks ago, I could not suppress my delight. Here was a case where the federal government opted to spend millions of dollars and waste countless hours prosecuting a former baseball player for allegedly making false statements to Congress. Given the current congressional quagmire and lack of any reliable information coming from our government representatives, the fact that someone was prosecuted for lying to Congress is just ridiculous. The fact that it involved baseball-related issues which affect approximately zero percent of the U.S. population made it even more ridiculous. And when the government prosecution went down in flames due to a horrendous and amateurish mistake, I admit to rejoicing.

My rancor towards the U.S. government in the Clemens case is not due to any type of appreciation or fandom for Clemens. Instead it comes from a substantial amount of frustration with how this country has evolved into a conviction machine. In a review on the collateral effects of convictions on employment opportunities, Michelle Rodriguez and Maurice Emsellem of the National Employment Law Project reported that 65 million Americans have a criminal conviction. 65 million! That is one in every four adult Americans. In the wake of advanced technologies for background checks, employers are now easily equipped to review the criminal backgrounds of job applicants. And if a potential job comes down to a choice between the applicant without any convictions and an applicant with a conviction, who is going to lose every time? As Rodriguez and Emsellem go on to report, 65 million Americans are effectively blocked from working as a result of their convictions.

I certainly do not care about Roger Clemens’ ability or capacity to earn following his criminal mistrial. What I do find infuriating is the government’s hellbent attitude on trying to secure a conviction…despite the thin charges and despite the cost to the taxpayers. And clearly, it is an attitude that is held by prosecutors nationwide in light of the fact that one fourth of the population having a criminal conviction. My frustration is targeted more at prosecutors’ insistence that a defendant take a plea or go to trial in minor or misdemeanor charges instead of some alternative resolution that would take away the risk of conviction and prevent a defendant from having to answer “yes” to the question of “have you ever been convicted of a crime?” Convictions carry so many consequences beyond the fines and the possibility of incarceration. Future employment is obviously affected, as is a defendant’s ability to get a loan or get into higher education or even travel to another country.

Fortunately for me and my frustration, I had the opportunity to participate in a program that helped ease my anger. (Surprise! This is actually a positive blog post!) I assisted in the District of Columbia Safe Surrender Program, which allowed hundreds of defendants who had outstanding bench warrants to walk into court on a Saturday with the high possibility of having the warrants quashed and getting their cases back on track. I had the opportunity to assist and speak with over one hundred defendants who took advantage of the program. Yet what was even more beneficial was my interaction with the prosecutors from the DC Office of the Attorney General (OAG).
We were able to work together to secure positive resolutions for all of the defendants who came through the court. On some cases, OAG was willing to drop the case entirely if the case was old or if the defendant had managed to do some good things in the interim such as obtaining a valid driving license. And in other cases, OAG wanted more time to assess their goals for the case and set the matter down for a status hearing. But what definitely happened with each and every case is that the defendant was able to walk out the door with his or her warrant quashed rather than being held in jail. OAG proved to be quite the contrary to my frustrated vision of the “hellbent prosecutor.”

Thanks to the cooperation and work of the Court, defense counsel and OAG, the Safe Surrender Program was a success. For me personally, the program was a success in at least restoring some hope to me that maybe not all prosecutors are following the Clemens model, and maybe not all prosecutors are scurrying to add to the 65 million. Maybe there are some prosecutors who agree that a case does not always have to end with a conviction in order to achieve justice for all.

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