Law in the Internet Society

The Collateral Consequences of Free Resources

-- By ConradJohnson - 8 April 2013 - Final Revisions

Incorporation of Technology in Criminal Legal Services

As a general matter, law as a profession has been slow to adopt new technologies in every-day practice – slow as compared to other professions, business entities, and the majority of clients. Lawyers have consistently rejected, or at the very least delayed, the incorporation of new technologies into their practice, while judges routinely demonstrate uneasiness when facing technological issues in the law or embracing the use of technological advances in their courtrooms. Many law professors too have been slow to incorporate technology into their classrooms or to grapple with questions of how new advances may affect practice.

Yet, over the last two decades, computer and telecommunications technologies have developed at an extraordinary rate. Increased computing power, advances in data transmission, and attractive, user-friendly graphical interfaces present legal practitioners with unprecedented capacity to collect, store, analyze and share data with stakeholders inside and outside of the profession. As a result, technology is slowly but surely being incorporated into law practice. E- filing and E-discovery are but two well known examples.

However, public criminal legal services has lagged behind other sectors of the profession in the widespread integration of useful technology. I became acutely aware of this while working at a major provider of indigent criminal defense services, where I observed both lawyers and administrators continually rely on outdated every-day practices. Given the high stakes &#8211- personal liberty and everything that flows from a criminal record - it is unfortunate that there is extraordinary room for advances in legal practices but a sense of reluctance to move forward. Of course, one major contributor to the slow pace of technological integration in these high-volume offices is an unfortunate lack of funding. Service providers struggle to afford even ordinary supplies while still being compelled to deal with case loads that leave very little opportunity to experiment with, let alone incorporate technologies that are often expensive to install and time-consuming to learn. This problem has become increasingly worse in recent years as municipalities around the country have cut funding for public defender services (see Testimony of The Legal Aid Society regarding proposed budget cuts in New York City in 2012). Nevertheless, in the absence of increased funding, public criminal legal services organizations can turn to free software/tools to address systematic problems. An example of this is the Collateral Consequences Calculator.

Collateral Consequences of Criminal Convictions

The problems associated with confronting what are often referred to as the collateral consequences of criminal conviction have increased markedly over the past fifteen years. The politics around immigration, drug enforcement and crime prevention have caused a proliferation of additional consequences for criminal conviction and an expanded lack of knowledge regarding how, when and where these consequences occur. Generally, the collateral consequences of criminal convictions are further civil actions by the state that occur across a broad spectrum of activities and can include loss or restriction of a professional license, ineligibility for public funds including welfare benefits and student loans, loss of voting rights, loss of child custody or visitation and deportation for immigrants. Unlike the explicitly articulated direct consequences of criminal convictions, such as prison terms, parole eligibility, or fines, collateral consequences lay largely hidden and unspoken. Further, because notions of expertise often involve deep knowledge of narrow areas of the law, criminal jurists, prosecutors and defense counsel have, until recently, been excused from the responsibility to know and communicate collateral consequences. Thus, without enough time and resources to perform a proper analysis for each client in an overburdened public defender’s caseload, indigent clients can and do suffer.

4Cs & the Collateral Consequences Calculator

Recognizing this fact, the U.S. Supreme Court in Padilla v. Kentucky determined that the Sixth Amendment guarantee of effective assistance of counsel affirmatively requires attorneys to educate themselves and their clients on collateral consequences pertaining to immigration. Even before Padillia, New York’s former Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye saw the need to address the problems caused by siloed information in the profession and sought to raise awareness about collateral consequences as an example of how the public and profession is hurt when expertise is not shared. She commissioned the Columbia University School of Law’s Lawyering in the Digital Age Clinic, headed by Profs. Conrad Johnson, Mary Zulack, and Brian Donnelly to ultimately develop the 4Cs website and Collateral Consequences Calculator. The 4Cs site is a free online resource that provides high-quality content managed by experts in the major areas of New York law where collateral consequences occur. The Collateral Consequences Calculator was created as a companion resource to the 4Cs website and was designed with an “at-a-glance” format so that users can quickly see where collateral consequences occur in immigration statewide and public housing eligibility in New York City. The free, online tool provides “turnbuckles” that expand to reveal more information as needed. In this way, the Calculator offers key information that can serve as a base for further research and investigation as warranted by the particular circumstances of each case.

Ultimately, although the 4Cs website and Collateral Consequences Calculator cannot account for the specific circumstances of each defendant, they are both useful and freely available technological innovations that can be used by even the most cash-strapped public services organizations. While the 4Cs was designed to aid legal research that is likely performed in the office, the Calculator was formatted for use in fast-paced environments like arraignments (Note that in 2011, for example, the NYC Criminal Court processed 354,797 arraignments). By informing both counsel and judges of the many areas in which criminal convictions can impact a defendant, these free technological resources facilitate justice in areas of dire importance.


The 4Cs website and Collateral Consequences Calculator have quickly became the most popular technological resources for information about collateral consequences in New York, demonstrating how free resources are not only useful but are yearned for. Hopefully more free technological services like the Calculator start to become available to continue to improve the important practice of public criminal legal services.

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r7 - 23 Aug 2014 - 19:31:21 - EbenMoglen
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