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.

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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