Jobs, housing and public safety

By Alan Bean

America’s punitive consensus is counter-productive.  We don’t want to be victimized by ex-offenders, so we exclude them from the job market and bar access to low-income housing.  Left without viable options, they re-offend.  Maybe they write a hot check, or they resort to nickel-and-dime drug dealing, or they break into the neighbor’s home and haul the loot to the nearest pawn shop.  Policies designed to lower exposure to ex-offenders, breed criminal behavior.  Street crime rises, recidivism rates soar, and incarceration rates are stuck in the stratosphere.

Mitch Mitchell, a crime reporter with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, does a terrific job of documenting the plight of the ex-offender.  For decades, politicians have been competing to see who can be toughest on crime; gradually, Mitchell’s article, suggests, they are beginning to grapple with the consequences of their punitive policies.  

Mitchell should be applauded for emphasizing the housing issue, a piece of the puzzle that is often overlooked.  Here’s the thesis paragraph: 

Finding housing and employment are crucial to an ex-offender’s successful reintegration into society, experts say. But after serving their time, many ex-offenders find that they cannot get a job without a home address and cannot find a place to live without the money to pay rent. So they may end up roaming the streets.

Ex-offenders in Texas often can’t find housing or work

Fort Worth Star-Telegram

By Mitch Mitchell

For a brief moment, Tim Baker considered that death might improve his situation.

“Suicide is natural for someone who is depressed,” Baker said.

Baker had a number of scrapes with the law, ending with felony convictions on two charges of driving while intoxicated. After an eight-year prison stay, he was released. He got a job as a heating and air-conditioning technician and reunited with his family.

But he was let go after the company began working for a school district, which prohibits convicted felons from being on school property.

Soon Baker was on the streets.

“I get the sense that most people don’t care,” he said. “We’re put in this mold of being once a convict, always a convict.”

Baker, 52, now lives at the Salvation Army in Fort Worth and spends his days putting out dozens of résumés in an effort to find work. He and Brian Shaw, who is also looking for work, often run into each other at Texas Re-Entry Services, which tries to give them the tools they need to find employment and housing.They are among about 75,000 inmates whom the Texas Department of Criminal Justice releases every year. This year about 7,000 are expected to return to Tarrant County.

In the three years after release, about 32 percent of Texas state jail offenders and 24 percent of the prison population will be re-incarcerated, according to a Sunset Advisory Commission review of the Texas prison system released this month. Taxpayers bear the burden when offenders are re-incarcerated at an average cost of $50.79 per day, the review says.

Finding housing and employment are crucial to an ex-offender’s successful reintegration into society, experts say. But after serving their time, many ex-offenders find that they cannot get a job without a home address and cannot find a place to live without the money to pay rent. So they may end up roaming the streets.

During a 2011 homeless survey in Tarrant County, more than 76 percent of the 410 people surveyed said their criminal records were the main reason they were unemployed, according to Cindy Crain, executive director of the Tarrant County Homeless Coalition.

Kay Smith, founder of Texas Re-Entry Services, said: “If you are coming out of state prison you get $100, a bus ticket home and a suit of clothes. If they have a place to go they’re lucky. If they aren’t lucky they end up homeless.”

During the past three fiscal years, funding cuts have curtailed Re-Entry Services’ reach, Smith said. Funding for the Directions Home Program, which helps ex-offenders needing housing, has dwindled from a high of $140,700 in 2010 to $51,600 this year, Smith said. Two case managers lost their jobs because of the funding cuts.

Cindy Wright, supportive housing case manager for Re-Entry Services, said, “I’ve got 36 clients right now and I cannot effectively manage any more than that.”

Efforts to help

Several initiatives have been launched to try to help offenders transition back into communities.

Last month, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced that it had updated its criminal background check policy, saying employers should not base employment decisions solely on an arrest record when there is no subsequent conviction.

The new EEOC policy also says employment policies with blanket exclusions against hiring people with criminal backgrounds have disparate racial impacts. The commission cited data indicating that about 1 in 17 Anglo men is expected to serve time in prison during his lifetime, compared with 1 in 6 Hispanic men and 1 in 3 African-American men.

In 2009, the Legislature made key changes in state law to try to improve the planning and strategies of the Criminal Justice Department to help prepare offenders for release and reduce the likelihood they’ll commit more crimes. But the sunset report says the department has not carried through, hindering efforts to reduce recidivism. The law created a new Re-Entry Task Force, for example, but it has not reported any findings or coordinated with local providers to improve services. And the report says the department has yet to draft a re-entry plan, as required by law.

At the local level, Tarrant County Commissioner Roy Brooks said that in 2005, he helped bring together people to create the Tarrant County Re-Entry Initiative, in hope of increasing the reach of nonprofits that are working on the problem. “Everyone needs a place to live in order to be a productive citizen,” Brooks said. “It costs more money to maintain a person in the criminal justice system than it does to provide services to them in a community that will give them a chance to succeed.”

The initiative has had success, he said.

“Since we’ve started the initiative, we’ve seen the recidivism rate go down in Tarrant County by approximately 1,500 people a year,” Brooks said. “We’ve coordinated the efforts of 15 nonprofits and maybe 60 churches, and that has helped make a tremendous community impact during the past five years.”

A long, hard road

But the road that returns ex-offenders to respectability remains tough.

Very few people who are not involved in the criminal justice system know the difference between burglary, robbery and larceny, said Otis Thornton, Fort Worth homelessness program director. Yet employers make hiring decisions based on their idea of what they mean, and landlords may require criminal background checks and reject applicants with a record, he said.

“If we believe in the criminal justice system then we need to stop continually penalizing people,” Thornton said. “I think it’s appropriate for landlords and employers to have a risk model. I think they should write it down and be honest about what are their legitimate risks. If you have a risk model and you have met the person, people can then examine their willingness to provide a person with an opportunity.”

The issue for landlords and property owners is not money, but liability, said John Mitchell, executive director of the Apartment Association of Tarrant County. Landlords who rent to ex-offenders, whatever the crime, increase the likelihood that they will be sued if that person commits another crime that harms a tenant, Mitchell said.

“There are a lot of great people out there who are trying to get their feet back under them, but their housing options are limited,” Mitchell said. “If their risks could be limited, I’m sure landlords and property owners would open up their portfolios to some nonviolent ex-offenders.”

Most public housing is also out of the reach of ex-offenders. Last year, top Housing and Urban Development Department officials wrote an open letter asking the owners of HUD-assisted properties to do more to open their properties to ex-offenders. The letter said that about 7.5 million people nationwide are released from prisons and jails each year and that allowing ex-offenders to reunite with relatives provides people with incentives for staying out of prison.

HUD officials asked owners to “seek a balance between allowing ex-offenders to reunite with families that live in HUD subsidized housing and ensuring the safety of all residents of its programs.”

About three years ago, the Fort Worth Housing Authority loosened its criteria for renting to ex-offenders, allowing those with certain criminal backgrounds to be eligible for assistance if they stay out of trouble for five years after the offense, instead of requiring that they have clean records for 10 years, said Selarstean Mitchell, the authority’s vice president of assisted housing.

Public housing authorities, however, must abide by guidelines set by Congress regarding potential renters with criminal histories.

The Fort Worth authority denies aid to families with histories of drug-related or violent crime by any household member, as well as to registered sex offenders.

While protecting the public is essential, public safety is compromised if offenders can’t transition back into society, Brooks said.

“Unless the community is willing to provide alternatives the ex-offender will re-offend,” Brooks said. “For those who want to be taxpaying citizens, they deserve our help.”

Mitch Mitchell, 817-390-7752