Black Homelessness a Sign of Where History Still Needs to Go

February 14, 2017

Well, we’re still In the midst of commotions created by our President and his choices for some top-level officials.

We’re also in the midst of Black History Month — a time when we’re supposed to pay more attention than we usually do to important people and events that brought blacks in America and thus America itself to where we are now.

A worthwhile endeavor. We may even discover the up-and-coming Frederick Douglass.

I’m taking a different tack, though one that’s far from unique. Where does the black stream of American history have yet to go? That’s a much larger question than I’m prepared — or indeed, suitable — to answer.

So I’ll d return to an issue that’s still drawing people to my blog — why homeless people don’t work or do, but are homeless anyway.

My last post on the issue ended with a bare mention of race discrimination. I left it hanging because it’s one of those complex cause-effect factors.

I’ll try to disentangle some of them here, conscious that I’m over-simplifying what merits a book, but also that those factors speak to the larger question I led off with.

Black Over-Represented Among Homeless

Homelessness itself is as good a starting point as any, since it’s unusually common for blacks. They represent 39.1% of all homeless people, according to the latest breakout from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

That’s less than 10% smaller than the percent of homeless whites — and nearly three times the percent of blacks in the U.S. population as a whole.

High Black Poverty Rates

Nobody needs a post to tell them that people of all races are homeless because they can’t afford housing. That itself is over-simple. Some can afford housing, with or without a subsidy, but still may still have no safe, stable place to live.

Criminal records pose a barrier to both privately-owned and public housing. More on that below. We need here to recall that they’re not the only records that can keep people out of housing they can afford.

Merely having been poor at some time in the past can keep people out — even housing a federal voucher would subsidize — because landlords commonly check credit histories. Not out of idle curiosity, of course.

But lack of ready money accounts for a lot. And the black poverty rate, like the homeless rate is disproportionately high — and has been ever since the Census Bureau started breaking out its survey results by race.

Which takes us to work issues. Obviously, since people who have good-paying jobs can pay for housing, though not necessarily where they want it. And, as we all know, the readiest path to those jobs, is a good education.

Labor Market Disadvantages Linked to Persistent Segregation

Blacks’ disadvantages in the labor market date back to slavery, when some freed by former masters or self-liberated worked for pay, but far more, still-enslaved were denied any education.

The Jim Crow laws that replaced slavery didn’t prohibit educating blacks, but generally allowed it only in schools that were, as the Supreme Court eventually found, “separate but unequal,” inherently so, though they were also often unequal in other ways.

Federal laws notwithstanding, blacks remain segregated in many communities due in part to local housing policies, e.g., zoning, discriminatory housing practices, and vestiges of past discrimination by the federal government.

Disadvantages to living in neighborhoods — or whole communities — where policies have concentrated blacks are themselves a cause-effect tangle, reflected in the high black poverty rate.

A major, though not the only reason for the rate is lack of marketable skills — literacy, including now computer proficiency and, beyond that, a formal education credential, which employers use as a threshold sign of those skills.

Schools in high-poverty neighborhoods generally have less money than those in well-off neighborhoods and they need more to ensure that the disadvantages of poverty don’t hold children back.

This issue is far from new and hasn’t garnered much by way of consensus on solutions. I may return to it, especially now that desegregation and equal educational opportunities have again become front-page controversies.

For now, the end result will have to suffice. For too many black youth, it’s is lack of a high-school diploma or the equivalent — the minimal qualification for most jobs — and virtually all paying enough to make housing affordable.

Growing up and going to school in a high-poverty neighborhood may not altogether account for this. We’ve also got some persuasive evidence that black students don’t get a fair shake.

For example, they’re far more likely than their white peers to incur punishments that not only deter them from learning, but can tempt them into criminal behaviors — or at the very least, gain them criminal records. And so we loop back ….

Disproportionate Criminal Justice

It’s common knowledge by now that our criminal justice system sweeps in a far higher percent of blacks than whites. Police practices of various sorts put them at higher risk, according to reliable local investigations..

We’ve reasons to question whether they’re treated equally thereafter — how they’re charged, if at all, whether they’re actually sent to jail or prison, whether they’re sent back for failing to comply with parole requirements they can’t meet, including payments of court fees and fines.

Now, as I said, public housing authorities and owners of federally-subsidized housing must bar people who’ve been convicted of certain drug offenses, but some go considerably further.

Private-sector landlords generally may pick and choose tenants, though with a recently-announced constraint that may not remain a federal fair housing enforcement policy.

The weeding out helps account for the high black homeless rate. Whether sheltered or living in some place “not meant for human habitation,” homeless people are likely to be on the streets most of each day.

That in itself can lead to a criminal record, even for such harmless behaviors as resting on a park bench or sleeping under a bridge because there’s no room in a shelter—or the shelter’s too unsafe.

And so we’ve got a loop-closer, though hardly one that accounts for either the high black homeless rate or the closely-related poverty rate.

Like the other factors I’ve cited, these are more or less systemic. We mustn’t, however, levy the whole blame on systems. Every one of the factors I’ve cited affords evidence of out-and-out discrimination.

Another piece of the puzzle I’ll have to leave for another day. But even this much means, of course, that we’ve every reason to recognize the many millions who overcame — and did so much to make many of our worst policies past history.

But it also reminds us that we’ve got a long way to go — and right now, urgent needs to preserve the progress we’ve made.


Election Rigged, But Not As He Says

November 7, 2016

I’m thinking, as I’m sure you all are, about the election. Hard, in fact, to think about anything else today. This much we know. It’s rigged, though not as one prospective sore loser has said.

We’re familiar by now with the barriers states have erected, especially since the Supreme Court hobbled enforcement of the Voting Rights Act.

But here’s an old one that will prevent an estimated 6.1 million U.S. citizens from voting tomorrow — state laws that disenfranchise people who’ve been convicted of felonies. More than three-quarters of them have fully paid their “debt to society.”

Like the voter ID laws, the contraction of early voting periods and the like, the felon disenfranchisement laws deny voting rights to a far higher percent of blacks than citizens of other races.

Roughly four times as many, the Sentencing Project reports — or roughly one in thirteen, as compared to one in fifty-six. And like the other laws and practices, the most exclusionary are in Southern states.

Florida and Virginia, which pundits have viewed as swing states during this Presidential election cycle, bar more than one in five blacks from voting because of a felony conviction.

The top four states all have Republican-controlled legislatures. And all but one — Virginia — have Republican governors too.

Virginia’s governor recently moved to restore voting rights to all former felons who were no longer on probation or parole. Blocked by a court after the Republican House and Senate leaders, joined by four other voters sued.

Do we detect a partisan interest in the felon disenfranchisement laws? For sure. But the laws are rooted in racism, as The New York Times editorial board explains.

Briefly, the harshest laws date back to the days when Southern states sought to prevent blacks from exercising the voting rights granted by the 15th Amendment to the Constitution.

The laws prohibiting felons from voting were an early and common way to avert “the menace of Negro domination,” as the candid president of Alabama’s constitutional convention put it. States, of course, doubled down with poll taxes, literacy tests and other formidably challenging  requirements.

Fast forward to the late 1960s. A number of states began to pare back their felon disenfranchisement laws. Yet the number of ex-felons denied the right to vote grew — from fewer than 1.8 million in 1976 to the projected 6.1 million.

The rate of black disenfranchisement due to felony convictions has grown accordingly. In 1980, laws in only two states barred more than 10% — neither, incidentally, in the South. Today, laws in nine do.

We all know what accounts for this — our war on crime, especially drug-related crimes, including mere possession and petty dealing. Nearly 40% of people behind bars for drug law violations are blacks, according to the latest figures from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Looked at another way, blacks are about 10 times as likely to be incarcerated for a drug offense as whites, though the best data we have indicate that use rates barely differ.

We can’t, I think, attribute the glaring difference in incarceration rates entirely — or even mostly — to race discrimination in courtrooms, though we can’t rule that out either.

Police forces generally don’t patrol well-off neighborhoods, looking for people taking a toke or selling a bag. And those who live there — mostly whites — usually don’t sell drugs on street corners anyway, as Christopher Ingraham at Wonkblog points out.

If well-off people do get arrested, they’ll have lawyers to negotiate plea bargains so as to reduce the offense they’re charged with to a misdemeanor — or to mount vigorous defenses.

Poor and near-poor people must rely on public defenders, who’ve got far too many clients to represent as effectively as the right to counsel requires.

Even if well-off people are convicted of a felony, they’ll have the money to pay the fines and fees that courts often levy. Doing that is frequently required to end a period of probation or parole.

And that will restore voting rights to ex-felons in 18 states, assuming they’ve satisfied all other conditions. But dozen impose lifetime bans on at least some people ever convicted of any felony.

So a middle-aged black man in Florida who’s been active in Democratic politics recently learned he can’t vote because of a petty drug crime he committed 30 years ago. “I don’t have a voice,” he says. “I’m like an anonymous person.”

He, no longer anonymous, represents a very large number of Americans who’ll have no voice in decisions that will powerfully affect their lives — and ours.

An injustice piled on top of injustices that go along way to explaining why they lack a right many of us still take for granted, legal and possibly illegal voter suppressions notwithstanding.


DC and States With “Ban the Box” Laws Ban People With Criminal Records From Work

March 10, 2016

We’re familiar by now with ways employers screen out job applicants with criminal records. Seven states and the District of Columbia have adopted “ban the box” laws to give these applicants a fair shot at gainful, legal work.

Turns out that all these states and the District have other laws or regulations that deny them any shot at jobs in various occupations where they could get paid a good bit — or become their own employer in these fields. Does the right hand know what the left hand is doing?

A new report on “employment bans” from the Alliance for a Just Society suggests probably not. The bans here are laws that deny occupational licenses to people who’ve been convicted of certain crimes — or in some cases, any crimes at all.

One can see, I think, reasons for certain bans. A prudent concern for public safety could justify denying licenses as armed guards to people convicted of irrational crimes of violence when they first return to the community.

Someone with multiple convictions of drug dealing on a major scale perhaps shouldn’t get a license as a pharmacist right away. Denying a license to operate or work in a daycare center to someone convicted of child sexual abuse would surely seem reasonable.

But we see that the District reportedly has 72 crime-related restrictions on employment, including 35 applicable to occupational licenses or certifications and others (the number isn’t clear) that restrict business licenses. Illinois, which also has a “ban the box” law, has more than twice as many of the former.

The report, eye-opening as it is, lacks details one might wish for. Happily, the American Bar Association has an online database that specifies “collateral consequences” for licenses, by occupation and jurisdiction.

Some of the District’s one might understand, e.g., a ban on employment as a security officer after conviction of a weapons offense. Others you have to read to believe.

For example, the District denies licenses to buy and/or sell “junk/secondhand personal property” to people convicted of any felony. Any felony or misdemeanor renders someone ineligible for a real estate license or a license to act as an agent for athletes.

Most of the licensing barriers people with criminal records may face aren’t so clear because the ABA (rightly) classifies them as “discretionary.” This is true not only for the District, but for states, my random check indicates.

The District generally invests wide discretion in boards specific to particular occupations or categories thereof. They’re supposed to deny licenses to applicants with criminal records only when the offense “bear[s] directly on the fitness of the person to be licensed.”

Well, what does that mean? Whatever folks on the board decide apparently. But they’ve no such discretion when it comes to ten occupations the law exempts, leaving these to the Mayor’s discretion through the rulemaking process.

A strange collection here. Barbers and cosmetologists, for whom apparently rules were issued barring only those found guilty of “moral turpitude” — as if having knowingly filed a false tax return has anything to do with whether one can skillfully and safely cut hair (or fingernails).

Others in the exempt category include funeral directors, commercial bicycle operators and people who specialize in several types of building systems installation and repairs. What, one wonders, led policymakers to subject these occupations to different standards?

The more important question, of course, is why people who’ve paid their debt to society should suffer “collateral consequences” when they seek licenses to work in occupations they’re demonstrably qualified for, except when their records raise well-founded concerns about harms to others.

I’ve focused here on the District, but returning citizens face barriers to work that engages –and rewards — their specialized skills and/or knowledge everywhere, beyond the prejudices of individual employers. This is also true for some people who had no jail or prison term to return from.

The White House has raised concerns about these barriers, noting that as many as one in three Americans has a criminal record. Like half the states, the District has no standards specifying the relevance a conviction must have to a particular license, it says.

It cites other concerns as well, e.g., fees and the costs of tuition to meet the education or training requirements. These presumably close doors to many returning citizens, as well as other low-income people. And the need for these isn’t always obvious, as a selective account compiled for the District by the Institute for Justice shows.

Occupational licensing has burgeoned. Roughly five times as many workers were covered by state licensing laws in 2008 as in the early 1950s. Nearly two-thirds of the growth since the mid-60s reflects licensing in new occupations — and in new sectors, e.g., sales, construction.

All states and the District must soon submit comprehensive workforce development plans to receive funds authorized by the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act — the new version of the Workforce Investment Act.

The plans must include success measures, with results reported separately for groups with especially high barriers to employment, including ex-offenders.

And they’re to include provisions for career pathways, i.e., individualized sequences of work experience, education and/or training and other services that will qualify them for increasingly advanced positions in high-demand fields.

Looks like a goodly number of those pathways for ex-offenders could lead to “do not enter” signs states and the District have posted. They’d be well-advised to reassess them if they want fewer re-offenders.

 


Public Housing Policies Deny Second Chances to Ex-Offenders

April 9, 2015

The Washington Post recently told the story of a highly-qualified woman who’s had difficulties getting — and keeping — jobs because she committed a crime 25 years ago. We’ve had quite a few such stories, plus reports, conferences and the like.

But a criminal record — not necessarily a conviction — can effectively condemn a low-income person to homelessness in another way. And homelessness can propel the person back into the criminal justice system. Congress bears some share of the responsibility for this, but not as much as public housing authorities.

Federal law prohibits PHAs and private-sector owners of federally-subsidized housing from accepting as tenants people who’ve been convicted of certain sex offenses or of manufacturing methamphetamine in federally-assisted housing.

The ban applies to these ex-offenders not only as renters, but as members of households that could otherwise qualify. Generally speaking, PHAs must also impose a three-year ban on people who’ve been evicted because of a drug-related crime.

Both PHAs and the federally-assisted project owners must have written policies specifying how they will screen applicants and decide whom to house. These must include the aforementioned bans. They must also comply with some legal limits, e.g., the anti-discrimination provisions in the Fair Housing Act.

But within these bounds, PHAs and project owners can exercise discretion. And that, all too often, means denial, as a new report from the Shriver Center on Poverty Law shows.

The researchers reviewed more than 300 policies. They found a goodly number that use their permissible discretion — even exceed it — to deny housing to people who pose no manifest risk to tenants, employees, the owners themselves or the property.

Nor do they establish a legitimate basis for determining that the screened-out people would adversely affect the “right to peaceful enjoyment of the property” — a screening criterion the law allows.

The report identifies four major ways policies deny affordable housing to people who deserve a second chance, as well as some that shouldn’t need it.

Unreasonable lookback periods. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development expects policies to set a reasonable lookback period, i.e., time limit, for the criminal history they’ll consider relevant.

But some policies have no time limit — or even expressly establish lifetime bans beyond those federal law requires. Some others look back as far as 25 years. So an applicant in his early 40s could be rejected because he got into a gang fight as a teenager.

Use of arrests as proof of criminal activity. The law allows PHAs and project owners to screen out people who’ve “engaged in” certain criminal activities, rather than only those who’ve actually been convicted.

Some policies expressly deny housing on the basis of arrests. Others treat arrests as evidence, though not necessarily conclusive proof of criminal activity. In either case, people are guilty, even if a judge or jury has found the contrary — or even if they were never tried.

Knowing, as we do, how our criminal justice system sweeps in a far higher proportion of blacks than whites, these policies arguably violate not only the Fair Housing Act, but similar state laws or provisions in their broader civil rights laws.

Overbroad categories of criminal activity. The law apparently envisions policies designed to protect tenants and others on covered housing properties from harm, truly intrusive disruption — or in the case of drug felonies, perhaps temptation.

Some policies go much further, effectively banning people with a record of any felony whatever — or in fact, no felony, but a misdemeanor, e.g., trespassing, urinating in public.

You see what a catch-22 we have here. Homeless people who’ve got no place to take a pee, except in an alley or behind a bush denied housing because some police officer decided to run them in.

Underuse of mitigating circumstances. The law requires PHAs to consider mitigating circumstances if applicants appeal denials based on their criminal records, i.e., reasons the crimes don’t reflect their current or likely behavior.

These may include gainful, legal employment, participation in a job training program or some other program designed to help ex-offenders stay on the straight and narrow, a strong support network or even simply the fact that the crime was committed a long time ago and says nothing about suitability as a tenant now.

Both PHAs and project owners may consider such circumstances in their initial screenings. Policies reviewed indicate that some PHAs do, while others don’t even acknowledge the opportunity to ask for reconsideration.

Nearly four years ago, HUD urged PHAs to exercise their discretion in ways that would tend to give ex-offenders second chances. “A place to live,” its letter said, is “one of the most fundamental building blocks of a stable life.”

The PHAs “essentially … put it in their pocket and continued to deny people housing,” says the Shriver Center’s Director of Housing Justice.

The new report is primarily a message to HUD, which, it says, should step up the pressure. But we can use it as a lens to screen our local PHAs’ screening policies and practices.

The latter could well include what pressure, if any they exert on project owners that won’t rent to people who may — or may not — have committed a crime. There’s obviously a role here for our civil rights enforcement authorities too.

And for our policymakers, who need to step up funding so there’s room in public and other subsidized housing for everyone who needs it, including those who deserve a second chance.


Criminal Records a Major Piece of the Poverty Puzzle

December 15, 2014

“One Strike and You’re Out,” the Center for American Progress entitles its new report on the barriers people face when they’ve got criminal records. An astounding number of people do — far more than our decades-old enthusiasm for incarcerating people would lead us to expect.

Our anti-poverty agenda “risks missing a major piece of the puzzle” if it doesn’t deal with the barriers, the CAP report says.

They’re a reason many people are homeless — and state and local governments so strapped for funds to house them. They’re even, in some places, a reason poor families go hungry. And they help account for the racial inequality that’s once again in the news.

Other bad things too, e.g., untreated mental health and substance abuse problems, a dent in our country’s economic productivity. More than I can possibly deal with in a post. So a partial overview of the problem. A followup perhaps on CAP’s “road map” to address it.

Vast Number of Criminal Records

At the end of 2012, states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. territories collectively had criminal record files on nearly 100.6 million people. Some files may reflect arrests and/or convictions in more than one jurisdiction, however.

An analysis by the National Employment Law Project estimated a rounded-up 65 million unduplicated files on adults in 2008-9. Still a very large number — close to one in three Americans then. And we’ve no reason to believe the percent is lower now.

Much has been made of our extraordinarily large prisoner population — by far and away the largest reported for any country in the world. But many who’ve got criminal records were never behind bars. Some were arrested, but not convicted. Some not even tried.

Others were convicted of petty, nonviolent offenses, including things like disorderly conduct, drunkenness and harmless behaviors cities have prohibited to harass homeless people out of sight — or out of their turf altogether.

Not an Equal Opportunity Problem

A book published several years ago argued, as its title indicates, that mass incarceration, i.e., the unprecedented rate at which we imprison people, has become “the new Jim Crow” — a supposedly color-blind replacement for overt racial segregation.

We’ve got federal laws prohibiting race discrimination in employment, housing, education, other federally-funded programs and (putatively) voting. But it’s perfectly legal to discriminate against felons, except in some limited cases carved out by recent state and local laws.

And felons are disproportionately blacks and Hispanics, the former even more than the latter. A recent Sentencing Project fact sheet tells us that black men are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white men and Hispanic men 2.5 times as likely.

One in three black men is likely to be imprisoned as some point, as compared to one in seventeen white men. Though black women are less likely to go to prison, the disparity between them and white women is even greater.

What this means, of course, is that far higher percents of blacks and Hispanics will suffer the lifelong penalties of having a criminal record.

Rampant Use of Background Checks

At least 95% of people sent to state prison will be released. But that doesn’t mean their punishment will end. Their criminal records will significantly limit their opportunities for (legal) work. This is surely a major reason that more than 40% of people released from state prisons are back behind bars within three years.

People with criminal records may also have a hard time renting an apartment, even if they can afford it. They may, in some cases, have no chance at all of living in public housing, even with a family member who’s never had a run-in with the law.

The limited, but expandable public housing ban dates back to 1988. The private-sector barriers may be at least as old. But they weren’t nearly as high and wide as they are now.

In a way, the culprit here is the internet. Like much of our lives, past and present, criminal records are easy to find online. Entrepreneurial types have seized on the opportunity to provide “instant” background checks.

About 86% of employers recently surveyed ran (or commissioned) background checks on applicants for at least some jobs. For 76%, discovery of a nonviolent felony would be a “very influential factor” in the decision not to hire.

More surprising, at least to me, is the fact that roughly two-thirds of colleges surveyed in 2009 collected criminal history information from all applicants. And 55% said they considered it in deciding whom to admit.

We’ve no comparable figures for landlords. We do, however, have a survey finding that “only” 51% of landlords who managed their own buildings conducted criminal background checks. We’re left to infer that the percent is far higher — and told that neighbors are far safer — when buildings are professionally managed.

Tattered Safety Net

Criminal records are a direct cause, as well as a consequence of poverty, the CAP report says. In fact, one study concluded that the poverty rate would have fallen by more than 20% between 1980 and 2004 if we hadn’t engaged in mass incarceration.

The people whom criminal records trap in poverty may also fall through deliberately created holes in our safety net. As I’ve already mentioned, they may be barred from public housing — and for sure will be if they’d been convicted of manufacturing methamphetamines, no matter how long ago.

They may also be banned, for life, from receiving SNAP (food stamp) benefits and/or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families if they were convicted of any drug-related felony. Eight states have chosen to preserve the absolute bans on both, though federal law allows them to opt out.

Most other states have merely modified the bans, e.g., by exempting people convicted only of drug possession or those who’ve managed to get a slot in a substance abuse treatment program.

Only 14 states have decided that one strike should never mean you’re out of SNAP and TANF. Food on the table, some cash for the dreadfully poor, job training and affordable child care all surely help people who’ve returned to the community stay there successfully.

And they mean that the ill-advised “get tough on crime” policies won’t cause more collateral damage to children than they already do.

 

 


What Kind of Education Will Ex-Offenders Come Home With?

August 14, 2014

“Everybody comes back from prison with an education,” said the Urban Institute’s Jesse Jannetta at a recent briefing. The issue is what s/he’s learned. It could be that society doesn’t care or how to stay safe by linking up with a gang. New ways to get drugs perhaps.

On the other hand, it could be employment-related skills, including basic literacy. Educating inmates pays off, according to a RAND corporation meta-analysis of findings from previously-published studies.

Correctional education, as the researchers call it, isn’t a silver bullet. But it’s worth the investment — not only, as they conclude, because it reduces the extraordinary costs we collectively pay for putting so many people in prison, but because it can mean a genuine second chance for those who are released.

Basic Facts and Figures

About 2.2 million people are in our country’s prisons and jails. More than 70,000 return to their communities each year. And more than 40% of those released from state prisons, which house the vast majority, are back behind bars within three years.

There are various reasons so many ex-felons go back through the revolving door. Inability to get a steady, legal job is a big one.

Much has rightly been made of employers’ refusal to even consider hiring people with a criminal record. But it’s also the case that a large number of returning citizens lack even the minimal qualifications employers commonly look for.

Education and Basic Skills

The figures RAND had to work with are quite old — as are the figures cited above. The most comprehensive I’ve found reflect the results of a 2003 survey conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics.

Well over a third of the adults assessed lacked a high school diploma or the equivalent. Some weren’t even close. Nine percent had dropped out before starting high school.

Larger percents lacked full competency in the basic literacy skills one needs to cope with everyday tasks, e.g., reading instructions, understanding and filling out a job application, balancing a checkbook.

Below basic scores on these ranged from 16% for “prose literacy,” i.e. understanding a piece of written text, to 39% for quantitative literacy. On the other hand, considerably larger percents scored in the intermediate range for the two non-quantitative types of literacy NCES tested. So we see both opportunities and challenges here.

What’s missing, however, are skills needed to perform everyday tasks on a computer — and as of this year, to take the GED exams. Former prisoners return “digitally illiterate,” the director of the District of Columbia’s Office on Returning Citizens said at the briefing.

Also missing are skills required for certain types of jobs, e.g., auto repairs, construction, food preparation. We do, however know, that about 56% of state prisons and all but 6% of federal prisons offered some type(s) of vocational training when NCES did its study. And RAND’s analysis folds them in.

Correctional Education Pay-Offs

The numerous studies RAND reviewed indicate that former inmates who’d participated in a correctional education program were 13% more likely to get a job than those who hadn’t.

The odds seem considerably higher for those who’d had vocational training than for those who’d had only academic education — 28%, as compared to 8%. But there weren’t enough vocational training-only studies to make this difference statistically reliable.

There were, however, enough studies to make reliable conclusions about the effects of correctional education programs on recidivism.

The good news is that inmates who’d participated in such programs had a 13% lower risk of winding up back behind bars than those who hadn’t. The not-so-good news is that their risk was 30%.

One can chalk this up in part to employers’ reluctance to hire people with criminal records, qualifications notwithstanding. Participants at the briefing mentioned other factors as well, e.g., relapses into substance abuse, trauma, the need to generate an immediate cash flow in order to meet family obligations.

Homelessness is probably also a factor. One in five released prisoners becomes homeless immediately or shortly after returning to the community, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. They face additional obstacles to employment, e.g., no fixed address, no way perhaps to take a daily shower, limited, if any access to a computer.

RAND nevertheless finds that correctional education programs yield cost-savings. Comparing the highest estimated per participant cost to the lowest cost of his/her incarceration, it concludes that the reduced recidivism rate saves $5 for every $1 spent.

This, as the report notes, is overly conservative because it doesn’t include the financial and other costs to the victims of crime or any costs to the criminal justice system, except the jails and prisons.

Nor, as the report doesn’t note, does it include the human costs to returning citizens who go back through the revolving door — and to their families, including children, who are likely to have already suffered harms due to the prior prison term.

Similar arguments can be made for community-based programs that provide education and training for returning citizens who missed out while they were imprisoned — either because they couldn’t get into a program or because they didn’t care to at the time.

Another topic for another day.

 

 


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.