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Federal Government Should Build Upon Its Policies Supporting Reentry


Federal Government Should Build Upon Its Policies Supporting Reentry

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On April 25, 2016, CLS clients and staff met with Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch and Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Julián Castro as part of National Reentry Week. Clients had the opportunity to share their stories, and CLS Litigation Director provided the following policy recommendations, based on decades of representing people with criminal records.

In One Strike and You’re Out: How We Can Eliminate Barriers to Economic Security and Mobility for People with Criminal Records, Community Legal Services (CLS) and the Center for American Progress (CAP) documented that the one in three Americans with criminal records face intractable barriers to full participation in society and consequently are likely to live in poverty.  Nearly one of every two children in this country has a parent with a criminal record, as recently reported by CAP.  Given these stakes, the reentry policy agenda is critically important and must not be left out of the broader discussions of criminal justice reform.  From our work representing thousands of low income Philadelphians with criminal records, CLS urges the following recommendations to build upon the strong federal reentry efforts of the last year.

  1. Eliminate housing discrimination.  We salute Secretary Castro for HUD’s crucial guidances on consideration of criminal records in housing decisions under the Fair Housing Act. But they are just a first step. Compared to the employment context, efforts to limit housing discrimination against people with criminal records are in their infancy.  Education of public housing authorities and landlords, along with enforcement of Title VIII by HUD, will be critical next steps.
  2. Strengthen fair hiring rules.  EEOC’s guidance on consideration of criminal records by employers, issued four years ago today, was a game-changer, which still reverberates today as ever more employers adjust their hiring criteria.  The federal government, as the largest employer in the nation, must lead the way in hiring people with criminal records.  We urge that the forthcoming OPM regulations that will govern federal agency hiring include the EEOC guidelines for evaluating criminal records and postpone background screening until the last stage of hiring.  We also encourage the extension of fair hiring rules to federal contractors.
  3. Clear minor criminal records.  CLS has learned from our client representation that the best way to avoid discrimination is for criminal records not to come up in background checks.  The widespread recognition that record-clearing is the single most effective reentry strategy has led at least 23 states to expand expungement and sealing between 2009-2014.  Pennsylvania is examining taking record-clearing one step further, with “Clean Slate” bills (SB 1197/HB 1984) that would automatically seal minor convictions and arrests after suitable periods.  Providing for expungement of federal cases for the first time, as would be done by the REDEEM Act, is also essential.  (Clean Slate could also operate at the federal level, to automatically seal minor cases such as non-conviction, misdemeanors, and cases with sentences of probation.)
  4. Avoid criminalization of poverty.  The Ferguson protests shined light for the first time nationally on the burden of fines and fees, but Ferguson was just the tip of the iceberg.  Court debt issues were felt here, where the courts tried to collect four decades’ worth of debt from one out of every five Philadelphians.  We commend Attorney General Lynch for her “Dear Colleague” letter on court fines and fees and encourage follow-up education and enforcement. Additionally, we urge the finalization of the proposed child support rules.  These initiatives are crucial to attacking the never-ending cycle of debt faced by people with criminal records.
  5. Increase resources for civil legal services.  Hopefully, CLS has demonstrated the critical role that legal services can play in removing reentry barriers, from expungements to negotiating employment and housing denials to devising creative legal and policy solutions.  But the demand for legal services resources far exceeds the supply.  We thank the Obama Administration for leveraging the potential of legal aid by creating DOJ’s Access to Justice Initiative and the White House Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable (LAIR).