Addressing Poverty through the Justice System
Creating a path back into the community.
When re-entering the community and subsequently the workforce, it is important the government does not placing unnecessary barriers on achieving self-sufficiency. Many government-imposed barriers to stability have long-lasting negative effects on an individual’s family, community, and the larger economy. In many cases, bad policies can exacerbate the difficulties associated with re-entry, making it difficult to obtain stable housing and gainful employment.
Public safety is a core responsibility of government. Re-entry policies such as criminal record relief laws should be reasonably restrictive to protect it. However, there must be a balance between maintaining public safety and allowing defendants a second chance to achieve independence. In addition, states should ensure individuals exit incarceration with a plan that includes community resources and programs that have been proven to deliver results. Through long-term re-entry planning and limiting governmental barriers, states can promote autonomy, limit government dependency, and reduce recidivism.
Solving the Problems
The U.S. recidivism rate is 39% within the first 3 years of release and increases to 46% in the 5 years following release.1Matthew R. Durose and Leonardo Antenangeli, Recidivism of prisoners released in 34 states in 2012: A 5-year follow-up period (2012–2017), (U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, July 2021), https://bjs.ojp.gov/sites/g/files/xyckuh236/files/media/document/rpr34s125yfup1217.pdf. In early 2020, almost 2.3 million Americans, including approximately 52,000 minors, were incarcerated in federal, state, and local prisons and jails.2Wendy Sawyer and Peter Wagner, Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2020, (Prison Policy Initiative, March 24, 2020), https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2020.html. In FY 2015, the Department of Justice distributed $68 million in recidivism reduction grants. While there is little rigorous evidence that these grants deliver results, they merit further study.3Council of Economic Advisers, Returns on Investment in Recidivism-Reducing Programs (Executive Office of the President of the United States, May 2018), https://trumpwhitehouse.archives.gov/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/Returns-on-Investments-in-Recidivism-Reducing-Programs.pdf.
Regardless, the bulk of corrections and incarceration is handled at the state level. To better improve outcomes, we should look to states that have accomplished lower than average recidivism rates for guidance. Understandably, public policy isn’t perfectly transitive, what works in one state may not be feasible in others. Nevertheless, identifying and successfully scaling proven re-entry programs whenever feasible will play a critical role in improving re-entry metrics such as recidivism and employment.
For former inmates, some of the biggest challenges to restoration are the challenges put in front of them by the criminal justice system itself. That makes Daron Babcock’s work at Bonton Farms more difficult. He has structured his programs around addressing these challenges one-by-one, from learning good work habits to navigating transportation systems to anger management and people skills.
“It takes us 16 months to get someone job-ready,” he explained. “There are just so many encumbrances we have to overcome. They have to learn to handle conflict, to change their habits. You can’t rush this.”
But it’s working. That’s evident in the changed lives around him, and it’s evident in the community.
“Last year, Bonton had the lowest crime rate in South Dallas,” he noted. “Our city has a murder problem. But there’s no safer community to live in than Bonton. There’s something here that is working. Now, we just have to figure out how to give it away.”
Bridging the gap between justice involved individuals and employment prospects will be critical to improving re-enter outcomes. The unemployment rate for the formerly incarcerated was 27% before the disruptive effect of the COVID-19 pandemic and will likely remain well above that of the general population post covid.4Lucius Coulotte and Daniel Kopf, Out of Prison & Out of Work, (Prison Policy Initiative, July 2018), https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/outofwork.html. Addressing the stigma associated with being jailed or having a criminal record is difficult but not impossible. By elevating and promoting employment success stories we can move the needle on how the formerly incarcerated are perceived by employers.
How to implement
- Refer the formerly incarcerated to effective employment and training anti-recidivism community programs.
- Measure the efficacy of these organizations using outcomes (i.e., whether participants return to prison within five years).
- Encourage employers willing to hire former inmates to work with re-entry nonprofits.
- States should utilize the Federal Bonding Program to incentivize hiring.
Cafe Momentum – Dallas, Texas
Cafe Momentum is a top-tier restaurant that employs some unique staffers. To date, the restaurant has employed more than 750 young men and women coming out of juvenile detention facilities in a unique 12-month internship program. They learn skills and graduate with the confidence to move forward.5“What is Cafe Momentum?” Cafe Momentum, Home page, accessed November 30, 2021, https://cafemomentum.org.
Bonton Farms – Dallas Texas
Bonton Farms is an urban farm partnering with the formerly incarcerated to help them get back on their feet. The farm also provides nutritional counseling through cooking classes and offers health and wellness guidance.6Home page, Bonton Farms, accessed November 30, 2021, https://bontonfarms.org.
GCO Better Work Program – Peachtree Corners, GA
The Better Work program recruits businesses that are willing to employ individuals with felony records (with exceptions for recent violent crimes and sex-related offenses) and finds job candidates through referrals from local social service agencies serving the homeless, recently released, and those needing nutrition assistance. After receiving an application via the Better Work platform, employer partners agree to contact applicants within 72 hours. Better Work also refers job candidates to a variety of wraparound services and training programs provided by its network of nonprofit partners.
One in three Americans live with a criminal record, and nearly one in two children has at least one parent with a record.1“Communications Toolkit,” Clean State, accessed December 5, 2021, https://www.cleanslateinitiative.org/toolkit. This record follows and punishes individuals far beyond the end of their sentence, making it difficult to successfully re-enter society, find gainful employment, and transition from government dependence. Recent research from the Professional Background Screening Association found that 94% of employers conduct one or more background screenings on potential candidates.2Background Screening: Trends and Uses in Today’s Global Economy (Professional Background Screening Association, 2020), https://pubs.thepbsa.org/pub.cfm?id=459B8AB7-0CEA-625E-0911-A4A089DE5118. Additionally, one study from the University of Michigan found that a year after a record is cleared, individuals are 11% more likely to be employed and earn 22% higher wages.3“Communications Toolkit,” Clean Slate; “Collateral Consequences Resource Center; Michigan Set-Asides Found to Increase Wages and Reduce Recidivism,” Federal Sentencing Reporter 30, no.4–5 (April 2018): 361–362, https://doi.org/10.1525/fsr.2018.30.4-5.361.
With research showing criminal records stifle autonomy and lead to more government dependence, it is critical that state policies provide an easily attainable avenue to a clean record for all qualifying individuals. While many states allow individuals to petition for sealing or expungement of certain types of records, the process is often complicated, expensive, and time-sensitive. This creates additional barriers, leading to only a small number of eligible individuals successfully clearing their records.4“Communications Toolkit,” Clean Slate.
Using modern technology to create an automated record clearing model provides a larger number of individuals with an opportunity to obtain a barrier-free second chance—no matter their ability to afford an attorney or associated court fees. Beginning with Pennsylvania, states such as New Jersey, Michigan, and Utah have all passed legislation to automate and innovate their record clearing process.5“Automatic Clearing of Records,” National Conference of State Legislatures, July 19, 2021, https://www.ncsl.org/research/civil-and-criminal-justice/automatic-clearing-of-records.aspx.
How to implement
- Pass Clean Slate legislation to automatically wipe certain criminal records after a certain amount of time.
○ Evaluate the landscape to determine the level of policy aggression that is and is not attainable—sealing versus expungement, misdemeanors only, misdemeanors and state-jail felonies, non-violent offenses only, etc.
- Develop an automated process within the state for clearing or expunging records.
Pennsylvania Clean Slate Legislation.
In June 2018, Pennsylvania became the first state to pass legislation to use software to automate record clearing. The Pennsylvania Legislature passed the bipartisan Clean Slate Act with overwhelming support from Pennsylvanians, diverse coalition members, and directly impacted businesses and law enforcement. Since enactment, 1 million people have reaped the benefits, with over 36 million criminal cases being wiped from records.6Kristian Hernandez, “More States Consider Automatic Criminal Record Expungement,” Stateline, Pew Charitable Trusts, May 25, 2021, https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/blogs/stateline/2021/05/25/more-states-consider-automatic-criminal-record-expungement.
Justice-involved individuals face unique difficulties when transitioning back into civil society. One of the most pertinent is finding work and building a career. Work provides dignity and a means to become self-sufficient. These elements are critical to ensuring those recently released from the criminal justice system don’t re-offend. However, occupational licensing requirements often carry “good moral character” provisions that can close doors for justice-involved individuals desperate for opportunities to make meaningful contributions to society.
Good moral character (GMC) provisions are supposed to prevent unscrupulous characters from gaining a foothold in a profession.1Jonathan Haggerty, How Occupational Licensing Laws Harm Public Safety and the Formerly Incarcerated (RStreet, May 2028), https://www.rstreet.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/Final-No.-143-for-posting.pdf. Most of us are perfectly fine with rules preventing sex offenders from becoming schoolteachers and massage therapists; however, the vague nature of these provisions make them easy to abuse. Boards can deny people entry into an occupation using GMC provisions even if the applicant is currently in good standing with the law and their criminal history is old and unrelated to the profession they are seeking entry into.
These types of restrictions make it harder for justice-involved individuals to reintegrate into civil society. Furthermore, GMC provisions may not have the intended effect of safeguarding the public. Studies show that states with tougher GMC provisions in their occupational licensing schemes have higher recidivism rates. Texas, Louisiana, and Georgia have laws that prevent unrelated criminal history from being used to discriminate against candidates for professional licensing.2“50-State Comparison: Limits on Use of Criminal Record in Employment, Licensing & Housing,” Restoration of Rights Project, Collateral Consequences Resource Center, accessed December 5, 2021, https://ccresourcecenter.org/state-restoration-profiles/50-state-comparisoncomparison-of-criminal-records-in-licensing-and-employment/. However, Louisiana law provides no clear guidelines for what is and isn’t directly related to a past criminal conviction and is riddled with exemptions for certain occupations.
How to implement
- Repeal vague good moral character language within statutes.
- Ensure licensing denials can be appealed to an impartial third party and create a framework for licensing boards to use when considering applications from formerly incarcerated individuals. This would help make sure that boards act in the best interest of consumers and not as cartels.
Restrain good moral character provisions – 38 states and Washington, D.C.
The majority of states have reformed their occupational licensing laws to make it easier for ex-offenders to find work in licensed fields. Louisiana, Texas, and Georgia have all implemented some form of restraint on discriminating against felons (the frequent targets of GMC provisions). However, in Louisiana, this continues to be a problem due to exemptions and loopholes.