Today a criminal freed from prison has scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a freed slave or a black person living “free” in Mississippi at the height of Jim Crow.
The “whites only” signs may be gone, but new signs have gone up – notices placed in job applications, rental agreements, loan applications, forms for welfare benefits, school applications, and petitions for licenses, informing the general public that “felons” are not wanted here. A criminal record today authorizes precisely the forms of discrimination we supposedly left behind – discrimination in employment, housing, education public benefits and jury service.
Commentators liken the prison label to “the mark of Cain” and characterize the perpetual nature of the sanction as “internal exile.” Myriad laws, rules, and regulations operate to discriminate against ex-offenders and effectively prevent their reintegration into the mainstream society and economy. These restrictions amount to a form of “civic death,” and send the unequivocal message that “they” are no longer part of “us.”
- Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow, (NY: The New York Press, 2011)
Ex-offenders face many barriers to reentry upon their release. Many ex-offenders encounter severe difficulty in finding a job that will hire them. When they do, it’s often low-wage with diminished opportunity for advancement, as documented by the Urban Institute. (Most states make criminal history information accessible to the general public through the Internet, for even minor offenses.) And ex-offenders are among the most likely population to be subject to the crime of “wage theft” by their employers who cheat them, targeting a heavily indigent population with scarce legal representation. Part of the solution is the “Ban the Box” campaign many states are beginning to adopt. Second, states like New Jersey provide a “Work Opportunity Tax Credit” incentivizing employers to hiring ex-offenders. A third part is removing barriers to ex-offender entrepreneurship. Occupational licensing is a major area for needed reform, as many states make it very difficult to acquire a license for a variety of working class professions, including: barber, beautician, nail technician, security guard, athletic trainer, or operate a dance studio.
Moreover, the over-whelming majority of states bar ex-felons from receiving federally-funded public assistance, food stamps, and public housing. HUD has documented rampart and endemic discrimination on the part of landlords against ex-offenders. This is clearly illegal under the Fair Housing Act (FHA), as recently affirmed in 2014 by the Supreme Court in the Inclusive Communities… case Texas. Yet, FHA enforcement by HUD and state and county public housing authorities remains lax, underfunded, and politically fraught.
Additional financial barriers include the fact, many incarcerated persons pile up sizable debt and punitive legal obligations they cannot pay back, because in many states child support payments often continue to accrue while an offender is in prison rather than stopping the clock, so they’re presented with a bill for back-due child support owed. (See:child support arrears). More and more to plug budget gaps, states impose more debt on offenders by charging them for the cost of their own imprisonment, for their public defender, release ankle monitors, drug treatment, and supervision (See:Brennan Center report), and they gouge on prison phone calls (See:www.prisonphoenjustice.org). All this adds up to ex-offenders beginning Day 1 heavily in debt which most cannot pay back.
Inadequate job, educational, skills, and vocational-tech training, substance abuse treatment, and mental health treatment in the prison, probation, and parole systems are a major barrier, as well. One model to explore is Tennessee-TRICOR which provides job placement, job training, “soft skills” training, resume-writing, etc. assistance, acting as a bridge out of prison. Many non-profits maintain donated “suit banks” for ex-offenders to acquire work clothes (Wal-Mart has a “Dress for Success” program for low-income women, generally, but not ex-offenders specifically). In total, the Legal Action Center lists 70 total “roadblocks” to re-entry, and issues annual report cards for all 50 states ranking them 0-70 for most to least roadblocks in their laws.
Tearing Down the Barriers: Examples of Reentry Programs
Safer Foundation is one of the nation’s largest nonprofit providers of services designed exclusively for people with criminal records. Safer focuses on helping their clients secure and maintain jobs through evidence-based programs that are geared toward addressing barriers to employment and providing services that support their clients’ reentry efforts.
Prison Fellowship is an organization that seeks to restore those affected by crime and incarceration by introducing prisoners, victims, and their families to a new hope available through Jesus Christ. They equip wardens, prison staff, and volunteers, including men and women serving time, to create safer, more rehabilitative prisons that prepare prisoners to return to their communities as good neighbors.
Mission Launch, Inc. is a Kauffman FastTrac affiliate that is committed to the elimination of bias and barriers so that returning citizens can rejoin society and live out their full potential, contributing in meaningful ways. Mission offers a 16-week entrepreneurship training opportunity to the Washington, D.C./Maryland region for returning citizens.
The Fortune Society’s mission is to support successful reentry from incarceration and promote alternatives to incarceration. The Fortune Society has a one-stop model of service provision that offers programs including housing, employment services, family services, mental health, substance abuse, and education.
Pioneer Human Services is an entrepreneurial human service organization that provides people that are overcoming the challenges of criminal histories, substance use disorders and mental health issues by offering treatment, housing, training and employment services.
Operation New Hope: Ready 4 Work is a nationally recognized program assisting ex-offenders with re-entry into the community and workforce, effectively leading clients toward a productive life through a four-pronged approach; case management, life-coaching, job training and job placement assistance.
The Anti-Recidivism Coalition provides a support network for formerly incarcerated young men and women, and advocates for fairer criminal justice policies. ARC provides its membership with mentorship, mental health services, supportive housing, access to jobs and education, and opportunities to advocate for criminal justice reform.
A New Way of Life Reentry Project provides housing, case management, pro bono legal services, support services and leadership development to formerly incarcerated women in South Central Los Angeles, facilitating a successful transition back to community life. A New Way of Life also works to restore the civil rights of formerly incarcerated people.
The National Helping Individuals with criminal records Re-enter through Employment (H.I.R.E.) Network is both a national clearinghouse for information and an advocate for policy change. HIRE seeks to increase the number and quality of job opportunities available to people with criminal records by changing public policies, employment practices and public opinion.