Sing Sing Prison

A Home After Prison

FOR nearly 10 years, Marcus lived in a tiny cell in Sing Sing prison. His wife and children were eager for him to return to their home in public housing in Harlem. After he completed his sentence for attempted armed robbery and possession of stolen property, his parole board said he was ready to rejoin society. But the city’s public housing authority disagreed: Because Marcus — a pseudonym — had a criminal record, he was ineligible to live with his family.

Nationwide, more than 600,000 people return from prison each year and try to rebuild their lives. The only viable option for many of them is public housing. But local housing authorities across the country write their own rules. And they routinely bar applicants with criminal convictions — and often people with mere arrest records. That means these policies can affect the nearly one in three Americans who have some kind of criminal record.

Some people are excluded by federal law, specifically certain sex offenders and people who have been convicted of making methamphetamine in public housing. Otherwise, administrators from the nation’s 3,300 public housing authorities, which serve 1.2 million households, are supposed to balance family unity against a person’s potential risk to society as they consider applications. But far too often, they divide families without cause.

A single arrest in the past five years, for instance, can jeopardize a family’s application to public housing in parts of Maine, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Oklahoma and California. In St. Louis, anyone who has used, sold or made drugs in the past decade is barred from public housing.

To be sure, public housing officials have a serious obligation to guarantee residents’ safety. So it’s no surprise that many have ostensibly created these policies out of an abundance of caution. But such overly broad rules are only tenuously related to public safety. Worse, they are counterproductive.

Research shows that people who find safe, affordable housing after they are released from prison are significantly more likely to find a job and stay out of trouble. In one study of people who returned to society after completing a sentence, 60 percent of people who lived on the street and 50 percent of those in shelters were rearrested within a year, compared with 29 percent of people who had a home.

Such punitive policies may also be illegal. The Department of Housing and Urban Development announced in November that federal housing providers could not deny housing solely on the basis of an arrest, which is insufficient proof of criminal activity. It warned in April that criminal background screenings that exacerbated racial disparities might violate the Fair Housing Act.

Local housing authorities must help people get back on their feet. The good news is that a growing number of them are.

For many years, New Orleans effectively kept most people with convictions out of public housing. That was no small feat for a city that sends more people to jail per capita than almost any other city in the country. But earlier this year, it became the first city to comprehensively rewrite its rules on criminal background checks in public housing applications.

New Orleans now looks at the severity of the crime and the time since conviction to determine if an applicant can live in its public housing or should be further evaluated. For those who require more consideration, often for recent or serious convictions, a panel will make a decision based on the person’s criminal history, rehabilitation efforts, community ties and employment history. No one will be turned away from housing based on a conviction alone.

The New York City Housing Authority and the Vera Institute of Justice, of which I am president, are helping 150 people who have been out of prison for three years or less reunite with their families. Participants receive help with employment, health and social services. And if they complete the program without incident, they can join the lease. Several already have.

As promising as these reforms are, they’re just a few bright spots in an otherwise grim reality.

All local housing authorities should follow these examples and revise their rules to align with HUD’s guidelines. Many people who return from prison often live illegally with their families or friends in public housing, for lack of other options, and put those on the lease at risk of eviction. It’s much better for public safety, as well as for them and their families, if we help people live out of the shadows.

HUD should do more to encourage cities to moderate their restrictive policies. It should significantly shorten periods of exclusion, make local housing authorities look at applicants on a case-by-case basis and mandate that only offenses suggesting future risk to the housing community can lead to exclusion. The agency should also provide better training to officials at public housing authorities.

Marcus got an unexpected second chance two years after he was released from prison. He was allowed to move in with his family in Harlem through our pilot program with the housing authority. He now works in construction and will most likely join the lease soon.

We must take a hard look at how we treat people who have repaid their debt to society. Many of them return to communities that have been devastated by generations of tough-on-crime policies. We should use public housing policy to help people with convictions succeed, not continue their punishment.

Originally Published by:

The New York Times

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