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Criminal Records Use In Public Housing Needs Reform

Tagged under: News USA Criminal Justice Re-entry
By Omid Ghaffari-Tabrizi on June 21, 2016.

A picture of Lathrop Homes in Chicago.

Every year, nearly 600,000 people are released from prison every year. For many of those who lived in public housing before being sentenced, their family home is no longer a place where they can return.

Local housing authorities across the country are in charge of writing their own rules. Many of those make no exceptions for those with criminal records, regardless of where they are in the process of rebuilding their lives. Considering just how many Americans are impacted by criminal records, a large number of US citizens who would be otherwise eligible for public housing are left without safe or practical housing options.

There are, of course, federal minimums. For instance, certain sex offenders and those who have been previously convicted of running meth labs in public housing are barred. Other than those rules, however, the nearly 3,300 public housing authorities are supposed to balance family unity against potential risk to the community when considering whether an ex-con can rejoin their families. Of the 1.2 million households in public housing at the moment, however, many are divided without cause.

One arrest – no matter what it is for – in the previous 5 years can get a family disqualified from public housing in different cities in California, Georgia, Maine, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania. It goes beyond the state level. In St. Louis, the second largest city in Missouri, anyone who has ever sold or made drugs in the last 10 years is disqualified. In an effort to be "better safe than sorry", these rules are leaving communities neither safer nor better off.

Along with a good job, safe and affordable housing has been proven to be a key factor (PDF warning) in reducing recidivism. In fact, in a study done in New York City, researchers found that those who live on the street are 60% more likely to be rearrested within a year and those who live in shelters were 50% more likely to be rearrested within a year, while those who had their own homes were only 29% more likely to be rearrested within a year.

It not only makes ethical sense to reform the way criminal records are used, it is slowly becoming legally required. The Department of Justice and the Department of Housing and Urban Development joined together to figure out better ways and better laws to help people get better housing and better jobs. Their first step was to point out that it may actually be illegal to deny housing solely based on an arrest.

Public housing originally started out as being a means to help those who were once in the middle class but were outside of the labor market during the Great Depression. When the first national housing law - the Housing Act of 1937 - was passed, the explicit stated purpose was "to alleviate present and recurring unemployment and to remedy the unsafe and insanitary housing conditions and the acute shortage of decent, safe and sanitary dwellings for families of low income." The original authors knew that without good housing, you couldn't keep a good job and without a good job, you couldn't keep good housing. They wanted to guarantee at least one part of the equation.

In later years, it became thought of as a solution for inner-city poverty and isolation, as well as a basic human necessity for the less well off. Public housing is a way of fulfilling part of the state's responsibility to ensure that decent, affordable housing was available for all residents of the US. Local housing authorities must help people get back on their feet. Even if they have criminal records.

New Orleans is an example of a housing authority that kept most people with convictions out of public housing. Having done that in a city where more people are sent to jail per capita than almost any other city in the nation, this is impressive. As a result of the pressure this put on the community, things had to change.

In March of 2016, the Housing Authority of New Orleans changed their rules on how those with criminal records were treated. Rather than their attempt at a blanket ban, HANO now looks at how severe the crime was and how long it has been since the crime was committed. Those who have more serious or more recent charges will be assessed on a case-by-case basis by a panel who will look at the person's criminal history, efforts towards rehabilitation and reintegration, as well as their employment history. A conviction alone is no longer enough to disqualify you in New Orleans.

In another few months, the New York City Housing Authority and the VERA Institute of Justice will join together to launch a 2-year long pilot project in which 150 ex-cons and their families will be given public housing as well as case management services, such as employment training and other re-entry services, to see what works best and what doesn't work at all.

If other Housing Authorities followed the lead of these two cities, we'd have a much better chance at reducing recidivism while improving local communities and public safety at the same time. The frank reality is that upon release, many return to live with their friends and families in public housing, despite the fact it is illegal and puts their hosts at risk for eviction. This forces people back into the shadows they're trying to escape.

Improvements to current housing policies include shortening periods of exclusion, requiring case-by-case analysis for those with criminal records, and requiring a specific list of offenses that would disqualify a candidate and ensure those charges relate to future risk. Along with better overall training of housing officials, we can make the changes necessary. Public housing should return to its roots and go back to giving people get the help they need to become successful members of our communities.

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