By Christopher Zoukis
Because he viewed what he called the “devastating” consequences of being convicted of a felony were sufficient punishment, a federal judge in Brooklyn has chosen to ignore federal sentencing guidelines and impose just a year of probation as the sentence for a woman convicted of smuggling cocaine in this country and possessing the drug with intent to distribute.
The defendant in the case, Chevelle Nesbeth, then a 20-year-old college student holding a job and living in Connecticut with her mother, had been arrested at Kennedy International returning from her native Jamaica with 600 grams of cocaine hidden in the handles of her suitcases.
Though she claimed acquaintances had given her the suitcases and she was unaware they contained drugs, the jury convicted her of what Judge Frederic Block called “inexcusable” participation in a serious federal crime.
Under federal sentencing guidelines, the defendant should have faced a sentence somewhere between 33 and 41 months. But instead, at a May 24 hearing on her sentence, Judge Block pronounced a significantly lighter punishment: one year of probation, including a half year of home confinement, in addition to 100 hours of community service.
As promised during that hearing, the judge soon explained his reasoning in a written opinion. A 42-page opinion issued the same day argued that, the numerous post-release consequences of a felony conviction by themselves amounted to adequate punishment.
Drawing on his observations during more than 20 years on the bench, as well as studies of the issue, Judge Block said the collateral consequences of felony conviction only serve to “further punish criminal defendants” who have completed their court-ordered sentences.
Early in his opinion, the judge noted that almost 50,000 state and federal laws and regulations create felonies, and that the mere fact of a felony conviction can bring a wide range of practical and legal punishments beyond the court-ordered punishment in the case.
These collateral consequences include, among others, loss of federal benefits – including some often crucial items as public housing, student loans and driver’s licenses – which can seriously interfere with a released prisoner’s efforts to become rehabilitated and rejoin mainstream society. For many released prisoners, Judge Block wrote, these consequences could lead to even large problems, such as homelessness or loss of child custody, and heighten the released prisoner’s chances of re-offending.
In Ms. Nesbeth’s specific case, the convictions would likely make her ineligible for loans, grants and work assistance during the two years remaining in her college degree program.
The judge’s opinion also urged his professional colleagues to take into account these downsides in after-release life when shaping the sentences they impose, saying that impact has received inadequate attention from prosecutors, defense counsel and probation authorities.
Still, he recognized, the ultimate solution would require Congress to rethink whether the proliferation of post-release penalties was justified, or whether they in fact acted to “do the country more harm than good.”
The Brooklyn U.S. Attorney’s Office had no comment on Judge Block’s sentencing decision or his opinion explaining it.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com