A broad bipartisan coalition on Capitol Hill has rallied behind a sweeping criminal justice overhaul aimed at ending mass incarceration, which costs the nation $80 billon per year, a plan that would slash the nation’s bloated prison population.
But largely unanswered in those reforms is the question of what happens to prisoners once they are released. For those freed from prison or jail, getting out is just the first step. What comes next can be a daunting reentry process fraught with built-in obstacles to employment and family reunification. If criminal justice reforms are to work, experts say, they must be accompanied with policy changes that remove institutional barriers to reentry that stigmatize prisoners once they are released.
It’s a large population. Approximately one in three Americans has some sort of a criminal record, according to an extensive report released late last year by the Center for American Progress. That means that almost half of American children have at least one parent with a criminal record. These records can become a problem not just for people who have been convicted of a crime—even an arrest can appear on a record.
The upshot is that people released from incarceration often land right back in jail or prison. In 2011, the Pew Center on the States found that the national recidivism rate is at 43.3 percent. The problem, say criminal justice reform advocates, is that ex-offenders face multiple fees and barriers to employment, education, housing, and other social programs designed for the poor. This can lead to a vicious cycle of incarceration and re-incarceration.
Released prisoners face barriers to finding employment, locating housing, receiving public assistance, and getting out from under past debts—often problems that dovetail with and exacerbate one another.
The number one barrier, often, is finding a job. Approximately 60 percent of ex-offenders remain unemployed one year after their release. “Our clients don’t know who to go to in order to apply for a job,” says Brittany Peterson, a resource specialist at the Second Chance Risk Reduction Center in Kansas City, Missouri. “Doors get slammed in their face once a criminal background check is done.”
According to the National Institute of Justice, the research agency of the Justice Department, the stigma of having an arrest during one’s lifetime hurts an applicant’s job prospects more than virtually any other factor. These include such obstacles as long-term unemployment, receiving public assistance, or having a GED certificate as opposed to a high school diploma.
Though the “ban-the-box” movement—which urges employers to remove the question about criminal histories from job applications—has spread to several states, many employers still require applicants to disclose that information.
Criminal records reforms are at the heart of efforts to ensure that those released from jail don’t just end up back behind bars because they can’t find work. One strategy is to prepare inmates to tackle the tricky subject with employers head-on.
“We have to prepare individuals to speak about and own their criminal records,” says Stefan LoBuglio, who is the director of the Corrections and Reentry program at the Council of State Governments’ Justice Center.
During a recent trip to Wichita, Kansas, LoBuglio spoke with incarcerated women about how they would handle questions about their criminal histories once released.
“They’re being trained to offer a letter of explanation as well as a scripted response to an employer,” explains LoBuglio. The women were advised to explain where they have been, what they’ve done, where they are now, and how the programs they were enrolled in while behind bars put them in a position to work and contribute to the employer’s bottom line.
Making sure that criminal records are being reviewed appropriately is also important, says LoBuglio. Some states have adopted policies that go under the banner of Fair Chance Hiring. “They vary, but some of them require that the employer only looks at the criminal record after a conditional offer,” says LoBuglio, “And some look at the criminal record after the initial review.” The key is to allow individuals to be judged by their skills, rather than by an employer’s kneejerk reaction to seeing a criminal record.
Some states even go so far as to essentially getting rid of ex-offenders’ criminal records. In Massachusetts, an individual’s criminal record can be sealed for five years after a guilty conviction, or after jail or prison time—whichever is most recent. For a felony, a criminal record may be sealed after ten years. If the individual in question doesn’t commit any additional crimes, “an employer won’t be able to see the records,” explains LoBuglio.
Another key barrier to reentry is housing. As criminal justice advocates point out, one can’t find a job without somewhere to live, and finding somewhere to live without a job is equally difficult. For ex-offenders, having a criminal record compounds the problem. Public housing often operates on a principle of “one strike, you’re out,” and four out of five landlords perform criminal background checks on potential tenants.
In some cities, a public housing shortage makes it even more difficult for ex-offenders to find housing. “I don’t use public housing as an option,” says Peterson. “The wait-list is unrealistic.” Peterson sometimes directs her clients to sober living homes, a type of transitional housing for individuals recovering from addiction, but ex-offenders with no history of substance abuse are not eligible for this option.
Kansas City once operated a so-called release center that functioned as a halfway house for ex-offenders before they were permanently released. But it closed in September 2015 due to complaints from business owners that too many parolees were were disrupting the community. Instead, the city chose to open up a minimum-security prison. This struck criminal justice advocates as a step backward.
“Instead of closing prisons, they’re opening up more,” lamented Peterson.
For some prisoners, the problem is paying off debts—debts that often led to incarceration to begin with. The nation’s over-incarceration problem dates to the “tough on crime” policies of the 1980s, which imposed mandatory minimum sentences on often low-level drug offenses. These mandatory minimums increased the federal prison population from 25,000 to 219,000 between 1980 and 2012.
But state prisons have also played a role in increasing the overall prison population, often through what are sometimes called modern-day “debtors” prisons. Such prisons are filled with people who are jailed because they are unable to pay fees or fines.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the new debtors prisons have sprung up around the country in response to growing state budget deficits. Once an offender is released from jail or prison, he or she often has legal financial obligations such as fines or restitutions. Eighty-five percent of returning citizens have criminal justice debt, up from just 25 percent in 1991.
The barriers to economic stability that ex-offenders face post-release often make it hard or impossible for then to pay these fines, landing them right back behind bars. The ACLU advocates for a repeal of all laws that send individuals back to prison for failure to pay fines. The civil rights group is also pushing courts to consider a defendant’s financial ability to pay before treating nonpayment as intentional.
In some cities, programs have sprung up to offer released prisoners help finding jobs, housing, and social services. In Kansas City, Missouri, the Second Chance program is a part of a larger nonprofit called the Kansas City Metropolitan Crime Commission. The organization focuses on helping ex-offenders reintergrate into society.
“They’re people, and they deserve a second chance,” says Brittany Peterson, a specialist at the center, whose work involves preparing individuals for life on the outside. Second Chance prepares individuals with job readiness, finding suitable housing, and offers health screenings.
This kind of comprehensive approach is what criminal justice reform adovcates say is needed to reduce recidivism. As the CAP report concludes: “Enabling Americans with criminal records to earn a clean slate upon rehabilitation would permit them to redeem themselves and move on with their lives after they pay their debt to society.”