Low-Income Men in Prime Years Face Multiple Barriers

January 23, 2014

“Over 15 million men between the ages of 18 and 44 cannot afford to support a family,” writes Margaret Simms, one of the coauthors of a series of studies the Urban Institute has conducted for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

These are men who had no college degree and lived in families with incomes below 200% of the federal poverty line during 2008-10. The total number of low-income men “in their prime years,” so defined, was 16.5 million.

This is about 3 million more than in 2000. And it represents a somewhat larger share of men in the age group. They are, as one of the Institute’s studies says, “disconnected” or at risk of becoming so.

Figures in another of the studies bear this out. For example:

  • Only 61% of the men were employed during the three-year period and only 45% full-time, year round.
  • Of those who worked, 37% made less than $10,000 a year — below the poverty line for a single person.
  • A mind-boggling 85% made less than $25,000.

Yet 77% of the men were counted as part of the labor force, meaning they were either working or looking for work at the time the Census Bureau conducted the surveys the Institute used.

So there seem to have been far more at risk of disconnection than actually disconnected — at least, so far as work is concerned. Disconnection from family is another matter.

Fewer than half had ever been married. And only 32% were during the 2008-10 period. But one gathers from what Simms says and from discussion at a symposium the Institute conducted that a far larger portion are fathers.

Most would like to be breadwinners and involved in their children’s lives, according to the experts who participated. But, as we know from other research, they’re hindered by low earnings and poor prospects.

Belonging to this disadvantaged group is not an equal opportunity. The men are disproportionately black and Hispanic — 48% of the Institute’s target group when counted together.

Simms cites two critical factors that help explain this — though we shouldn’t altogether discount plain old race discrimination in the labor market.

For the group as a whole, one reason for the dismal employment and earnings figures is insufficient education. Nearly a third had no more than a high school diploma or the equivalent. And 29% didn’t even have that. But the latter was true for half the Hispanics.

With or without the formal education credentials that could qualify them for ongoing, decent-paying jobs, many can’t get a foot in the door because they’ve spent time in prison.

Though the incarceration rate for young non-Hispanic white men has risen somewhat since 1980, it’s risen more for Hispanic young men — and soared for those who are black.

In 2008, 11.4% of all black men between the ages of 20 and 34 were behind bars. This is well over six times the rate for non-Hispanic white men in the same age range and about three times the rate for their Hispanic counterparts.

Simms concludes that “another door must open.” Both public and private-sector policies must change to lower the employment barriers for ex-offenders.

As important as this is, I think, as do many others, that we also need to change our incarceration policies — and to eliminate what looks for all the world like race discrimination in both sentencing and the way some local law enforcement authorities go about their business.

The Institute’s findings also cry out for reforms in our education system — from pre-K through college. These obviously must include opportunities for adults to make up for what they didn’t learn, whether because they dropped out, were pushed out or graduated with only minimal basic skills.

Even this agenda is, I think, too narrow. Perhaps the Institute’s studies will culminate in something more satisfactory.

Criminal Justice System Traps Former Prisoners in Debt

October 21, 2013

I was struck dumb (not something that happens to me often) by the Shriver Center’s recent webinar on criminal debt.

I knew that parents often left prison with accumulated debt in child support that they could hardly pay while incarcerated. But I had no idea that our criminal justice system itself creates what are euphemistically called legal financial obligations.

Turns out that once people have paid their so-called debt to society, they often have a monetary debt, which can accumulate interest — and worse, result in re-incarceration for non-payment.

The debt itself consists in part of court costs and diverse fees. It may also include fines, restitution to victims and payment of bail when the terms weren’t met, e.g., showing up for a scheduled hearing.

And, in some jurisdictions, people convicted of crimes are actually charged for some portion of the costs of keeping them behind bars, even when they’re back there because their debt was too big to begin with.

Not only that, but arrangements to pay off the debt can involve fees, which needless to say, make the debt burden bigger. Other fees get tacked on for late payments and/or the collection agencies sicced on hapless debtors when they fall behind.

Fees and penalties vary from one jurisdiction to another. So I decided to get some specifics from a friend who’s a senior-level probation officer in a Midwest county. (Lack of specifics about who and where are, I trust, understandable.)

In the county’s system, defendants are charged $200 a day for time they spend before a judge — more if the case goes to a jury.

If they’re like at least 80% of people accused of state crimes, they have to rely on a public defender or another court-appointed attorney. The charge for availing themselves of their Constitutional right to defense counsel is at least $150 and maybe as much as $500.

Some understandably decide to cop a plea, even if a jury might not convict, my friend says.

At some point, they’re recommended for probation, which involves going before a judge. There goes another $200. As in many jurisdictions, they’re probably also responsible for paying a fine and/or restitution.

They leave jail with a long list of things they need to do to remain in the community — among them, meeting regularly with their probation officer. Charge for his/her supervision is $20 a month.

Paying off their other LOFs is there too, as is securing gainful employment. This top-listed item is, of course, an enormous challenge for anyone with a criminal record, but even more so for the large majority of former felons, who have, at most a high school diploma or the equivalent, relatively few marketable skills and scant (legal) employment history.

Many are “overwhelmed,” my friend says. They feel there’s no way they can fulfill all the conditions they’re supposed to meet. And so “they go back to what they know how to do,” e.g., peddle drugs, even if they’d left jail intending to lead a law-abiding life.

Well, that’s one, though a chancy way to get the LOFs paid off. They’re a reason, though not the only one, that more than one in four released offenders are back in prison within three years — both nationwide and in the state where my friend lives.

The county does, however, offer an alternative to coming up with cash for the LOFs. Probationers can perform community service, e.g., clean up roadsides, help out in a shelter. For this, they’re paid the minimum wage, which is booked as LOF payment.

But they have to pay $60 to sign up for community services — the equivalent of nearly a full day for the work they’ll perform. And if you look at the rest of the debt they may be carrying, you’ll see it would take them a dauntingly long time to pay it off this way.

And for some, the service option simply isn’t possible. Consider, for example, a single mother who’s got no nearby, willing family member to care for her kids and can’t afford child care.

Judges can waive LOFs in such cases, my friend said. But they generally don’t. They say family members will come up with the money. If not, the mother and others in her situation may find themselves back in jail — and with another charge for the court proceeding to add to the bill.

Even if they’re not reincarcerated, the very fact that they’ve failed to keep up with their payments can become a cause for extraordinarily harsh penalties because it can be treated as a violation of parole or probation.

That disqualifies them from major benefits for very low-income people, e.g., Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, SNAP (food stamps), Supplemental Security Income. It can also create yet other barriers to employment, e.g., by damaging their credit record.

One might wonder why any court system would do something that increases the likelihood of new offenses, let alone reincarceration without any. Why would so many make it so extraordinarily difficult for people who were often poor to begin with to climb out of poverty?

The basic answer is that what’s collected from the debtors shores up the budgets of the court systems, even if it’s often just a fraction of what they owe.

This whole revenue-raising business undermines both their justice functions and the appropriate functions of probation officers like my friend, as the Brennan Center argued in an oft-cited report.

It’s also obvious, I think, that the “poverty penalties,” as the Center calls them, undermine our interests in having as many ex-prisoners as possible rejoin our communities and legitimately gain the wherewithal to support themselves and their families.

Senate Farm Bill Amendment Sentences Former Felons and Their Families to Lifetime Hunger Risk

May 28, 2013

When my re-entry conference participant Cathy told me that she would live with her felony conviction for the rest of her life, she was referring mainly to her difficulties in overcoming employer biases.

Last week, the Senate tentatively decided that certain former prisoners and their families would also have to live hungry — or at least, at risk of hunger — for the rest of their lives.

It approved, by unanimous consent, an amendment to the Farm Bill that would deny food stamp benefits to convicted murderers, rapists and pedophiles.

Thus, no debate and no vote for the record on this extraordinarily harsh, ill-considered and, some say, potentially racist exclusion from one of our most important safety net protections.

Politically convenient for Senators who might have shared this view, assuming they knew what the amendment said. Infuriated columnist David Dayen says most probably didn’t.

Those who did may have stayed silent in fear that they could later be attacked as “coddling violent criminals.” The well-worn Willie Horton meme.

Bob Greenstein, President of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, reminds us that some of the ex-offenders are blacks who were convicted decades ago by all-white Southern juries.

Others may have been convicted because they were represented by an overburdened public defender who advised them to cop a plea — or because prosecutors withheld evidence that indicated they weren’t guilty.

But assume, for the sake of argument, that most were convicted for crimes they did commit.

The issue here is whether we, through our government, should create a new punishment beyond the sentence they’ve already served.

This would seem, as Greenstein says, to dismiss the very concept of rehabilitation. Or, to put it another way, to say to certain former prisoners, “You will never wholly re-enter our community.”

This, unfortunately is something our laws already do, though not so sweepingly as the Farm Bill amendment would.

Eleven states deny at least some former criminals the right to vote for the rest of their lives, unless they can get a pardon or another official action that restores the right.

Federal law mandates a lifetime ban against public housing occupancy and receipt of Housing Choice (formerly Section 8) vouchers by people who’ve been convicted of manufacturing methamphetamine in public housing.

The same ban applies to those required to permanently register as sex offenders — a broader category than we commonly think.

And, as the Farm Bill amendment’s sponsor, Senator David Vitter (R-LA) notes, there’s also a lifetime ban on food stamp eligibility for people convicted of drug felonies.

In this case, however, most states and the District of Columbia have opted out of or modified the ban, as the law allows. This is also true of a similar ban on cash assistance from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

No opt out possible in the new ban, however.

Yet the banned former felons’ income would be counted if eligible families applied for food stamps, thus reducing the benefits they could get — or the benefits they’re getting now, since the whole amendment applies to everyone ever convicted of any of the specified crimes.

So we’d be punishing people who had nothing to do with the crime — and, as another angry blogger says, creating an incentive for families to break up.

Some of the Senator’s Twitter followers unkindly noted* that he had gotten a second chance after the news broke that he’d used an “escort service” — more likely than not, a criminal offense, though not prosecuted.

And it may seem just snarky of me to mention it. But it points to opportunities for rehabilitation — forgiveness even — that I think most of us support.

The Vitter amendment will actually make staying on the straight and narrow more difficult. Surely it would be tempting for someone who’s struggled unsuccessfully to find a steady, good-paying job to commit a crime in order to put food on the table.

When the Senator introduced his amendment, he offered no justification for it, except to suggest that it responds to a “misconception that the ban is already in the law.”

And, as I said, no one spoke up to challenge it. Greg Kaufmann at The Nation suggests that we advise Senate Democrats to check Lost and Found for their spines.

If they find them, they could still modify the amendment — perhaps with an opt-out — or even better, take it out of the Farm Bill altogether.

I would hope that some of their Republican colleagues would join them.

The proposed lifetime ban flies in the face of a core principle of our criminal justice system, our multifarious interests in promoting rehabilitation and basic human values like fairness, compassion and forgiveness.

These aren’t — or shouldn’t be — partisan issues.

* The Senator has apparently purged the tweets I originally saw. So you may not find any if you click the link, though one had been tweeted again when I last looked.

Release From Prison Doesn’t End the Punishment

April 29, 2013

I spent most of a recent Friday at a conference on returning citizens. The Washington National Cathedral organized it to develop an agenda for actions that would help them re-enter the community after their release from prison — and perhaps keep so many from having to make the journey back.

I’ve been trying to digest the insights and impressions I gained. There was a lot coming at us from a lot of different angles.

And all the while, I keep thinking about what my tablemate Cathy, a recently returned citizen, said to me before the conference began. “I will live with this for the rest of my life.”

The “this,” I think, was partly the reason she was incarcerated to begin with — a nonviolent offense that involved no personal gain. She feels the charge was unfair.

She’ll live her whole life with a sense of injustice — and payments to the government for restitution in excess of $1 million.

The bigger part of the “this” are other consequences. Her family disowned her. And the case manager at the halfway house she was transferred to did nothing to prepare for the time she’d be released, though she’d have no home to go to.

“I would have been on the streets,” she said, if an acquaintance hadn’t found her a space in a shelter — a fortunate, if temporary solution to a common form of neglect that often leaves returning citizens stranded.

Top of the “this” list, however, is the red flag employers see.

Cathy has substantial work experience and in-demand skills. She got hired, criminal record notwithstanding, shortly after her release. But the company let her go, without notice or explanation. She assumes because some higher-up learned of her record.

She’s had a number of interviews since. But they’ve netted nothing — and in some cases, ended as soon as she’s disclosed her criminal conviction. The human resources person just “shuts down,” she said.

Well, Cathy is very capable and very determined. And there are people looking out for her interests, including some of the leaders at the conference.

So I believe she’ll find work. But her experience in our criminal justice system has inalterably changed her life — and in some ways, her very self, I gather.

Some would say, well, this is justice. An impartial judge decided she’d done something wrong. She was punished for it. And if the punishment lasts beyond her time in prison, so does the wrong. She can’t go back in time and undo it.

Set aside the particularities of Cathy’s case, where the question of wrong seems at least debatable.

I can’t help feeling that the justice our system purportedly metes out is enormously wasteful, both in dollars and in human lives. And the judgments commonly made about people with criminal records make the waste worse.

We incarcerate far more people than any other country in the world — nearly 1.6 million in 2011. We pay, on average, $34,135 a year for every one of them we’ve got locked up.

More than one in four released from state prisons are back within three years, draining funds that could be used for other purposes, including services that could keep them from going back through the revolving door.

“If any other institutions in America were as unsuccessful in achieving their ostensible purpose …, we would shut them down tomorrow,” says Professor James Gilligan.

The indirect costs of our propensity to imprison are greater than what we pay to lock up people who pose no risk of harm to anyone — and then to marginalize both them and formerly dangerous returning citizens who’d like nothing better than to lead ordinary, law-abiding lives.

A data analysis by two of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ projects found, among other things, that:

  • Former male inmates earned 40% less than they would have if not incarcerated — a loss of nearly $179,000 by the time they reached age 49.
  • Those whose earnings put them in the bottom fifth were twice as likely to be there 20 years later as low-earners who hadn’t done time.
  • They were thus earning less than $7,600 in 2006 — about 46% of the federal poverty line for a family of three.

We must also consider the collateral damage to those who’ve done nothing wrong at all. More than half the people behind bars in 2008 were parents of minor-age children — most of them fathers.

Two-thirds of them were in prison for non-violent crimes. More than half had been the primary breadwinners for their families.

So families become poorer and more unstable — not only while the parent is behind bars, but afterwards.

For these as well as other reasons, children whose parents have been incarcerated get into more trouble in school. One study found that 23% whose fathers had served time were suspended or expelled, as compared to only 4% whose fathers hadn’t.

Their “prospects for economic mobility become significantly dimmer,” the Pew authors say — a fine understatement. They may, in fact, as the American Civil Liberties Union says, be in the pipeline to prison.

These are all quantifiable costs — not only to the returned citizens and their families, but to our economy as a whole.

How do we measure the psychological damages to children whose parents are taken away — not only those that result in the kinds of behaviors that get them suspended, but anxiety, depression and the like?

The psychological damage to the parents themselves? “People are coming out traumatized because of what goes on inside,” said one of the returning citizens at the conference.

How do we measure the contributions people like Cathy might make if their job opportunities weren’t constrained by their records?

Or the loss to her godchild, whose parents have severed connections?


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