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April 29, 2010

U.S. must face reintegrating growing numbers of released prisoners

With an estimated 700,000 prisoners being released this year from state and federal prisons and thousands more from county and local jails due to budget cuts and prison overcrowding, the United States faces a national dilemma of how to handle the influx of such people into normal society.

Rather than helping former prisoners transition from prison to community and employment, many current state and federal laws have the opposite effect, interfering with the rights and obligations of full citizenship in nearly every aspect of former prisoners’ lives, according to Roberta Meyers-Peeples, director of the New York State Legal Action Center’s national HIRE (helping individuals with criminal records re-enter through employment) network.

Meyers-Peeples gave Pitt’s 11th annual Rubash Distinguished Lecture in Law and Social Work.

“One of the reasons people are talking about this now is because we are in dire economic straits. With the soaring prison costs, we’re beginning to recognize that we cannot incarcerate ourselves out of social problems,” said Meyers-Peeples in an April 22 lecture titled “A National Dilemma: Legal, Policy and Practical Barriers to Employment People With Criminal Records Face.”

“We are the No. 1 incarcerator in the world with 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated population. We spend billions of dollars on locking people up — $51.7 billion in 2008 — and it doesn’t work. We know that because our recidivism rates are so high,” Meyers-Peeples said.

“When you look at the numbers of the people who are affected by the various policies, we have to recognize that this is a national problem, particularly since we have laws and policies, both state and federal, that create roadblocks to re-entry into society. Almost all of these folks when they come back have to go to work, so we have to do something to make that possible. We need solutions that are logical, fair and compassionate.”

More than 7 million people in the United States either are incarcerated or out on parole, that is, one in 31 adults. More than 65 million people have a criminal history on file, she noted.

“When you look at how access to information is so prevalent, that tells you how many people are potentially affected by our background check policies,” which act as a barrier to a released prisoner getting a true second chance in life, Meyers-Peeples said.

Most states, including Pennsylvania, make criminal history information accessible to the general public on the Internet, making it easy to discriminate against people on the basis of old or minor convictions, for example to deny employment or housing, she said.

Meyers-Peeples drew on data from the 2009 HIRE network’s national report card on “Roadblocks to Re-entry: A Report on State Legal Barriers Facing People With Criminal Records.”

She said legal barriers to successful re-entry include:

Many public housing authorities deny eligibility for federally assisted housing based on an arrest even if it didn’t lead to a conviction.

Most states allow employers to deny jobs to people who may have been arrested but not convicted of a crime, in effect contradicting the “innocent until proven guilty” tenet.

“What we need is for employers to have standards to follow. Not only do you need to look at the criminal record, but look at evidence of rehabilitation, look at how long it’s been since a crime was committed, look at the relationship of the crime to the type of job, consider those factors,” Meyers-Peeples said.

Most states bar some or all people with drug felony convictions from receiving federally funded public assistance and food stamps.

Among the biggest barriers to successful re-entry for former prisoners is the stigma of being an ex-con, Meyers-Peeples said. “And there are so many other challenges, such as untreated addiction and mental health problems; low-level job training, based on the disconnect between the vocational training ‘behind the walls’ and jobs on the outside,” she said.

There also are occupation barriers and licensing restrictions: A convicted felon cannot get a barber’s license, a real estate license or a nursing license, for example. New York bars felons from obtaining more than 100 kinds of occupational licenses, Meyers-Peeples said. “So employment is restricted even if the crime committed is unrelated to the job and happened years and years ago.”

Ironically, studies document that employment reduces recidivism rates of people with criminal histories, even while policies are in place that inhibit employment opportunities, she said.

As a result, many former prisoners experience lifelong “invisible punishments,” such as living with the stigma of having a criminal record, statutory barriers to occupational licensing and employment and, increasingly, limited access to post-secondary educational opportunities, Meyers-Peeples said.

Another factor: Many people come out of jail owing thousands of dollars in child support, while they are facing a minimum wage job, if they can get employed at all, she said.

“We need to advocate for waivers for those who owe child support,” she said. “There also are prisoners coming out with no identification. And you can’t work anywhere in this country without an ID,” Meyers-Peeples said.

The HIRE report showed Pennsylvania had 41 of the maximum 70 legal barriers in place, making the state one of the worst  for the number of roadblocks ex-convicts face when trying to reintegrate into the community.

“We asked if there is a way for an individual to overcome these barriers. We need more mechanisms to restore rights. In most states, the only way to do that is by a governor’s pardon, something that doesn’t happen very much,” Meyers-Peeples said.

But in seven states, parole boards or judges are allowed to issue certificates that restore people’s rights, such as the ability to apply for licenses.

“It doesn’t guarantee the license, but at least you can apply for one,” Meyers-Peeples said.

There also is a movement in some states to “ban the box,” a reference to the place on standard job application forms where applicants must state if they ever have been arrested.

“The purpose behind that is to give people who are qualified for the job a chance to be considered for the job simply based on their qualifications, by getting over that first hurdle. Then the employer can do more digging. But by that point, if you have the interview, see the person face to face, you’re more likely to consider the person for the job,” she said.

Another positive sign is the federal Second Chance Act of 2008, which authorized funding for programs that provide services that help to reduce recidivism, such as employment, substance and alcohol abuse and housing, as well as mandating a review of federal and state barriers to re-entry.

Also, the Criminal Justice Reinvestment Act of 2009 is pushing states to reduce prison populations by considering alternatives to jail, such as counseling, probation and house arrest, particularly for minor crimes, Meyers-Peeples said.

In addition, the National Criminal Justice Act of 2009 set up a national commission to study criminal justice reform.

Meyers-Peeples said the HIRE network recommends:

Limiting public access to criminal records information;

Expanding eligibility for the expunging or sealing of criminal records;

Prohibiting private employers from asking about arrests that did not result in a conviction, and

Strengthening the restoration of rights process.

“We need to educate employers about employment barriers, and to figure out ways to overcome those barriers. The issue is not just about providing training in prison, because once the individual has committed to change, they still have to face policy barriers. When we give prisoners a real second chance, we all benefit.”

—Peter Hart

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