Criminal Justice News and VIews

Interesting items related to criminal justice

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Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Truth IS stranger than fiction

This raises some interesting issues. Educated ex-felons have a lower recidivism rate but considering his crime, there are security issues involved as well.

Should his age at the time of the offense be considered?

We may be reaching a point where we as a society must decide on exactly what we mean by rehabilitation and how far we will go to achieve this.

The Chronicle of Higher Education Today's News

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

U. of Alaska Declines to Admit a Killer to Its Social-Work Program, Raising Questions -- and a Lawsuit


Anchorage, Alaska

Micheal Purcell, who 21 years ago was jailed for 20 years for killing a convenience-store clerk in a botched robbery, is suing the University of Alaska at Anchorage because it has denied him admission to its social-work program. Mr. Purcell, who was released from prison last September and will be on parole until 2014, asserts that the university has breached the State Constitution's guarantee of the rehabilitation of criminals.

The case has set social workers here abuzz over the question of whether a convicted murderer can be rehabilitated and, if so, whether any killer could or should serve as a social worker. The case has also raised questions about what consideration colleges, particularly public ones, owe to applicants with criminal records at a time when more and more institutions are seeking protection from legal liability by carrying out criminal-background checks of prospective faculty and staff members.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska, which is representing Mr. Purcell, argues, in a state-court filing, that the university acted arbitrarily and unfairly in reviewing his application for admission.

The process began when an interview committee, consisting of two faculty members and one community member, recommended last year that Mr. Purcell be admitted. But in December the full faculty of the social-work program voted, 6 to 4, not to admit him. A university review committee, consisting of four faculty members and one student, all from outside the social-work program, endorsed that rejection in May. And finally, in June, the dean of the College of Health and Social Welfare, Cheryl Easley, upheld the decision.

University officials are declining to discuss the case while it is being litigated.

Mr. Purcell, now 37, was 16 in 1984, when he shot and killed the clerk of a convenience store during an attempted robbery. While serving a prison term, he completed a high-school-equivalency program. After his release, while living in a halfway house, he enrolled in courses at the university and earned good grades, mostly A's and B's.

Members of the social-work faculty have acknowledged that he is a strong student. He has completed most of the requirements of a social-work degree, has been active in volunteer work, and even served a term as president of the Social Work Club. He still needs, however, to complete an internship and some course work if he is to receive a degree in social work, and for that he needs formal admission to the social-work program.

The faculty vote against admitting Mr. Purcell relied on a policy, adopted in 2000 by the School of Social Work, that applicants may be rejected if they have a criminal record that leaves them "unfit for social-work practice."

The policy, university officials have noted, reflects state regulations about who may hold a social-work license. The policy was adopted after a student was admitted but then was discovered to have had a felony conviction for the sexual abuse of a minor. Since the policy was adopted, university officials have said, students have been rejected for having felony convictions or such misdemeanors as driving under the influence of alcohol.

Mr. Purcell and the Alaska chapter of the ACLU say they are basing their lawsuit on an article of the state's Constitution that grounds the criminal law, in part, on "the principle of reformation." Mr. Purcell says that the university, as a state institution, must judge whether he has reformed from his criminal past and that it has failed to do so, but has simply rejected him on the assumption that he has not.

In appealing the rejection, Mr. Purcell wrote in a letter to Ms. Easley, the dean of health and social welfare: "Even though I have made a bad decision in the past, I am striving to make myself a better person and the world a better place to live in."

The director of the School of Social Work, Beth Sirles, reportedly told the university review committee that Mr. Purcell should not be admitted because his crime had been so serious and because the social-work code of ethics puts the well-being of clients, not practitioners, first.

Lawyers for the ACLU argue that if former prisoners like Mr. Purcell are not given the opportunity to work, they will not be able to return to useful lives in society.

The review committee that upheld the full faculty's vote urged the School of Social Work to consider revising the criminal-background policy "to require consideration of specific mitigating factors pertaining to rehabilitation of applicants with felony records," according to its May report. The report also said that Mr. Purcell "can make a significant contribution to the university and community." Social-work faculty members will discuss changing the policy when they return to the campus, in August.

Mr. Purcell is now working as a kitchenware salesman. He told local reporters that he plans to enroll in core courses at the university in English, history, and mathematics in the fall, or that he may seek to enroll at an institution outside Alaska. His lawyer at the ACLU, Jason Brandeis, said on Monday that his client is no longer taking calls from the news media.

Copyright © 2005 by The Chronicle of Higher Education