Thursday, May 19, 2016

Reducing the Stigma of Criminal Backgrounds in America

As we all know, genuine systematic change never happens overnight.

Progress only comes in steps, but it's those individual steps, however small they might be, that lay the path to broader change that is lasting, significant and meaningful.

At long last in the United States, we're finally beginning to see unprecedented bi-partisan support from Congress on a major issue that undermines the very definition of the freedoms enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.

The massive effort to begin to depopulate American prisons of non-violent offenders and individuals jailed for relatively low-level drug offenses to address the crisis of mass incarceration.

Tackling the prison-industrial complex and the scope of the systematic unequal application and enforcement of local, state and federal laws that feed it is only one part of unraveling mass incarceration in America.

The reintegration of former prisoners back into society to enable them to become productive members of the community must be a priority as well, and slowly but surely those changes are starting to manifest around the nation.

Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe
Just consider the state of Virginia, where last month Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe restored voting rights to some 200,000 former convicted felons, enabling them to cast votes in the presidential elections this fall.

Despite outrage from Republicans who've made putting up barriers to the right to vote for students, racial minorities, the poor and the elderly a priority in recent years, surely restoring former convicts's right to participate in the Democratic process is a positive step towards keeping them on the right track.

Across the nation juvenile sentencing laws are being reformed at the state level to ensure that teenagers under the age of 18 are not incarcerated in prisons with adults, denied access to bail or locked up for low-level drug charges.

Like Connecticut, where Democratic Governor Dan Malloy is pushing the state legislature to pass more juvenile justice reforms in a state where reforms in juvenile sentencing that raised the age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 18 and the decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana have helped push the crime rate to a 48-year low.

But those kinds of changes, long overdue, are going even deeper.

Last month, on April 4th (the anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development issued a memo entitled "Office of General Counsel Guidance on Application of Fair Housing Act Standards to the Use of Criminal Records By Providers of Housing and Real Estate-Related Transactions".

Now that's a mouthful, but it's pretty remarkable.

What it boils down to is that HUD has issued new government recommendations and guidelines to real estate companies, residential leasing / property management companies, and associated vendors (like companies that provide application screening services) on screening individuals with criminal backgrounds for residency applications.

For people like me who process leasing applications for apartments for a living, it means HUD now recommends that we now need to begin looking closer at applicants who may be flagged for having a criminal record and look deeper at the specifics of what that record means - specifically because a disproportionate percentage of those with criminal backgrounds are people of color.

People who have been statistically proven to have been disproportionately targeted by law enforcement, and convicted in state an local court systems, for a range of non-violent offenses based on race and ethnicity.

For example, someone who submits an application for an apartment (or a mortgage) may be flagged for having a criminal record and prevented from renting or buying housing.

But that record may be for a minor drug offense, or a low level misdemeanor related to something like cashing a bad check, or getting into an altercation in a bar - and believe me, those kinds of things affect people of all races.

A criminal background flag may stem from warrants issued for accumulated fines from unpaid parking violations, or the criminalization of procedural vehicular violations, as we saw in places like Ferguson, Missouri.

Unarmed motorist Sandra Bland
Or worse, in Texas where Sandra Bland ended up dying in jail under mysterious circumstances for an illegal lane change - and no one faced legal repercussions for it.

Routine things like that can prevent people from being approved for renting an apartment, even if it happened 5 to 7 years ago - even if those folks qualify with good credit and sufficient income requirements.

If you have the time, read through the HUD memo, it's pretty significant in that it's making a major government policy recommendation that companies now begin to revise policy to take into account the fact that as many as 100 million American adults  (fully one third of the U.S. population) have some kind of criminal record.

The memo also highlights the staggering fact that the approximately 2.2 million people currently incarcerated in American prisons represent 25% of the global prison population - even though the U.S. represents only 5% of the world's population.

Now as some of you reading this know all too well, judicial and human rights activist have been talking about those stats for years.

It's a significant step that HUD is now recommending that private real estate companies begin to take those statistics into account when screening people for residency.

That's a big step for addressing mass incarceration in America, one that reflects an acknowledgment of a troubling reality in this nation.

The stigmatization of a huge portion of the U.S. populace based on systematic bias built into a law enforcement and judicial system that treats people differently not based on the objective interpretation of the law, but on the perception of the race, ethnicity, and socio-economic status of the individual.

Change doesn't happen overnight, it happens in steps, and the HUD recommendations are an important step in dismantling the dehumanizing savagery of the American prison-industrial complex.

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