“America has become a nation of ex-cons” with over 13 million former prisoners, quotes Human Rights Watch (HRW) in its recent report on how public housing authorities nationwide are using arbitrary policies to deny public housing to ex-offenders, as well as people with criminal records. That’s 6.5 percent of the adult population.

Calling itself “tough on crime” with its mandatory prison sentences and three-strikes policies, the justice system in this country has generated a prediction by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics that “if rates of first incarceration and mortality remain unchanged, nearly 1 in 15 persons born in 2001 will go to state or federal prison during their lifetimes.” The so-called “war on drugs” itself locks up 1.5 million people a year, with 80 percent for simple possession.

Despite these grim statistics wrought by an over-zealous justice system, the hands of federal housing laws wash those of the public housing authorities, by permitting them broad discretionary boundaries to disqualify former prisoners, and those only arrested and charged, never convicted, from public housing.


In its report, “No Second Chance,” HRW details its research on authorities that reject applicants for minor, non-violent offenses, such as writing bad checks, jaywalking, not paying for video rentals and shoplifting. One woman was denied because she lifted some chapstick and a few small items from a department store. Kept homeless, she lost custody of her children around the same time for lack of housing. The human rights group also criticizes the arbitrary and extensive length of the exclusionary time periods, which vary greatly from state to state.

“Exclusions from public housing are among the harshest of a range of punitive laws that burden people with criminal records,” charged HRW in the report, also pointing out that “Racial and ethnic minorities suffer disproportionately from exclusionary housing policies because of their overrepresentation among those who experience arrest and prosecution, those who currently live in poverty, and those who seek public housing.”

Why must people be burdened with their past criminal records, if they have proven to be rehabilitated from a life of crime–or more infuriatingly, never truly posed a violent threat to society at all.

Not only are these stark realities sad, they leave the government bordering on bitter hypocrisy and twisted irony, since this country was built by the unwanted prisoners languishing in England’s jails who were let loose and sent across the seas to forge a new reality in the “New World.”

Are the prisoners languishing in America’s jails today any less deserving of the opportunity to forge a new reality for themselves? And more basic and fundamental, is any human being so irredeemable that they do not deserve the dignity of decent housing? HRW notes that they do not know of any country that “deprives people of the right to housing because of their criminal histories.” The right to housing is recognized throughout the world in several documents of international human rights law; it is equated with food, clothing and health care.

The glaring truth is that the system of the U.S. government–federal, state and local–shuts down when it comes to dealing with the poor masses crushed in this country. Access to true freedom–ex-felons need not apply. Access to true equality–ex-felons need not apply. Access to true justice–ex-felons need not apply.

It is wrong to deny an entire class of people a new beginning, a second chance, if that is what they seek and commit themselves to attain. Instead of reinforcing invisible punishments that shadow people for the rest of their lives, a true government should work diligently to shed beaming light on a new road of redemption, recovery and rehabilitation for those who stumbled in the darkness of its society.