No second chances? Legal barriers frustrate ex-cons (FCN, 02-11-2004)

( – Hundreds of thousands of poor people across the United States are denied public housing because they have criminal records, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report released on November 18.

“They have been excluded for often minor and long-ago offenses that have no bearing on public safety, which is the goal of strict admission policies,” the report says.


The 101-page report, “No Second Chance,” details many of what HRW calls “unreasonable and needlessly punitive measures” used by federal and local housing officials, which they contend violates human rights law. In Pittsburgh, for example, an arrest for shoplifting leads to automatic exclusion for four years. In Austin, Texas, anyone convicted of possession of a small amount of marijuana is rejected for seven years from living in public housing.

Former prisoners, as well as people with criminal records who were never sent to prison, will find themselves condemned to living on the streets, in overcrowded shelters, in squalid transient motels, or crowded into the homes of friends and relatives.

“Everyone deserves safe housing, but these policies yield more misery and desperation than public safety,” Corinne Carey, researcher for HRW’s U.S. program said. She said certain offenders are excluded for life, regardless of evidence of rehabilitation.

During a telephone interview with The Final Call, Ms. Carey said there had been good reaction to the report from many people in the Congress, who say they are willing to support new legislation.

“We also have positive reaction from many national public housing organizations, who said they were shocked at some of the practices by local Public Housing Authorities,” she added, noting that the goal of the report was to make an impact on public policy.

“We want federal laws that impose bans on certain types of offenders from public housing repealed,” she insisted. The report criticizes housing policies for being “so arbitrary, overbroad and unnecessarily harsh that they exclude even people who have turned their lives around and remain law-abiding, as well as others who may never have presented any risk in the first place.”

The HRW report is an examination of former president Bill Clinton’s “one strike” policy, which was said to be established to protect housing developments from potentially dangerous tenants. However, Congress incorporated this restriction–that one offense disqualifies a person from receiving public housing–into federal housing law. According to the report, the justification then extended to include two other reasons: the demand for public housing exceeds the supply, and the belief that offenders of the law do not deserve a second chance and become “legitimate targets of policies that are little more than expressions of disdain and hatred.”

Some critics of the federal government’s exclusion policies call it the “prisonalization of cities” which has effectively created permanent convicts with no place to belong outside the prison cell. “Former prisoners, as well as people with criminal records who were never sent to prison, will find themselves condemned to living on the streets, in overcrowded shelters, in squalid transient motels, or crowded into the homes of friends and relatives,” argued the report.

“Your child is hungry, you shoplift a loaf of bread–and you don’t get to live in public housing for five years. That’s crazy!” said Hugh Pressley, 57, a homeless activist for a community-based organization Picture The Homeless. “If you have done your time and not on parole or probation, why are they holding that over your head?” he asked. Observers say that the public housing exclusion clauses are indeed poor public policy with an outcome that does not serve the public’s interest. In a 2002 study by the Open Society Institute in Baltimore, Md., it was concluded that a greater number of people become homeless after being released from prison than were homeless prior to incarceration. HRW estimates that there are 12.5 million Americans who are homeless.

The human rights group also pointed out in their report that there was no nationwide data on the number of people excluded because of criminal records. Some 600,000 men and women are released from prison each year, according to activists. HRW estimates that at least 3.5 million people have been convicted of a felony in the last five years.

“Given that housing authorities typically exclude for five years anyone convicted of a felony, it is likely that at least 3.5 million are currently ineligible for public housing,” HRW said.

But, according to Ms. Carey, there is light at the end of the tunnel. “The federal government is finally paying attention to the people leaving prison and re-entering the community,” she noted. President George Bush, in his 2004 State of the Union Address, vowed to help ex-inmates. He dubbed the program the “Prison Re-Entry Institute” and proposed allocating $300 million over four years to assist ex-offenders find stable jobs and housing.

“If they can’t find work, or a home, or help, they are much more likely to commit a crime and return to prison,” Pres. Bush said.

In New York City, activists such as Mr. Pressley are putting pressure on state officials to review policies that affect the city’s 200,000 public housing units, the most in the nation.

“We have been to Albany, and we have talked to the staff of Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno (R), and all they said was they would look into it,” Mr. Pressley revealed. “We also need to change the way these shelters handle the programs that are supposed to help us.

HRW submits numerous recommendations to the Congress, HUD, public housing authorities, and even the United Nations. The report states: “The United States should abandon ‘one strike’ policies, reject all automatic federal exclusions, and prohibit local housing authorities from establishing their own. PHAs should be required to undertake individualized and meaningful assessments of each applicant to ascertain whether they pose a risk to the safety, health and welfare of existing tenants. The United States must recognize that all its residents–even those who may not be appropriate for traditional public housing because of the risks they pose–have a right to decent and affordable housing.”