Nationally, an estimated 19.8 million persons have a felony record. The collateral consequences of justice involvement can follow a person long after their interaction with law enforcement. Housing, along with employment and voting, is one of the most difficult barriers to overcome.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) issued new guidance to landlords and home sellers that turning down tenants or buyers based on their criminal records may violate the Fair Housing Act. Persons with criminal records aren’t a protected class under the policy, but due to racial disparity throughout the criminal justice system, automatic exclusion of refusing to rent to anybody with a criminal record is de facto discrimination.
Recently, legislation was introduced in the District of Columbia to codify the new guidance into law. And previously, advocates in Kansas City and New Orleans addressed automatic housing bans in private and public housing respectively.
Kansas City Files Fair Housing Lawsuits Against Privately-Owned Apartment Complexes
The Civil Rights Division of the Kansas City Human Relations Department filed at least six fair housing lawsuits against privately-operated apartment complexes alleging race and national origin discrimination because of their refusal to rent to persons with criminal records. The litigation led to a series of meetings with local apartment associations including the Apartment Association of Kansas City and the Heartland Apartment Association. The meetings offered an opportunity for dialogue with apartment officials on how disparate theory worked. The agency also offered guidance that rental decisions could be made on a case by case basis after looking at the length of time that has elapsed since release from prison, the nature of the crime committed, and evidence of rehabilitation since release.
The litigation and engagement with apartment associations also led to agency outreach activities with justice involved persons. Staff encouraged persons with criminal records to contact the agency if they are turned down for housing or employment and are told or suspect that the reason for the denial is their status as a justice involved person. Other agency activities included presentations at community forums,developing factsheets, and publishing commentary in local newspapers.
New Orleans Advocates Campaign to Remove Automatic Affordable Housing Bans
A grassroots effort anchored by justice involved persons with Stand With Dignity and VOTE resulted in improvements to affordable housing in New Orleans. The city’s Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) recently adopted a policy that will evaluate the convictions of applicants for both public and Section 8 housing against a set of screening criteria. Decisions to admit applicants will depend on the nature and date of those convictions; HANO officials will either admit the applicants or send their cases to a three-member panel for closer review. Prior convictions that require further review include armed robbery and homicide. HUD must approve the policy.
The multi-racial coalition’s advocacy strategies included vigils, teach-ins, and story circles to raise public awareness. Campaign organizers worked with directly impacted persons to testify in several public hearings to reinforce the importance for policy change. VOTE published a research report, “Communities, Evictions, and Criminal Convictions,” in 2013 to educate stakeholders about the problems with housing for persons with criminal records.
Illinois – HB 5973 passed out of the Illinois House of Representatives with bipartisan support. The bill expands employment opportunities for people with criminal records by establishing rehabilitative review criteria. HB 5973 governs a process for review and limits discretionary license denials to crimes directly related to the practice of that specific occupation.
Kentucky – Gov. Bevin signed HB 40, legislation that expands the state’s expungement provision, to include the lowest level of felony convictions. The measure also authorizes voting rights for persons who are granted an expungement.
Louisiana – Legislation to authorize fair chance hiring or ‘ban the box’ for persons with criminal records was voted out of the House. Lawmakers also advanced HB 598, a bill that would allow voting rights for persons with a felony conviction sentenced to parole, probation or suspended sentences.
Maryland – The General Assembly passed the Justice Reinvestment Act (SB 1005). Provisions include administrative release by scaling back requirements that often prevented people from being paroled after serving 25 percent of their sentences; eliminates mandatory-minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses, such as possession with intent to distribute and drug manufacturing; and authorizes judges to sentence persons on community supervision to 15 days for a first violation, 30 days for a second and 45 days for a third, rather than potentially longer sentences. The measure also increased sentences for some crimes including the sentence for second-degree murder from 30 years to 40 years.
Massachusetts – Gov. Charlie Baker signed legislation that repeals most automatic suspensions of driver’s licenses for persons convicted of drug crimes.
New Jersey – Companion legislation was introduced in the Assembly to authorize racial impact statements. Racial impact statements are a tool for lawmakers to evaluate potential disparities of proposed legislation prior to adoption and implementation.
Oklahoma – Lawmakers approved several criminal reform measures including HB 2472, that gives prosecutors discretion to file charges as a misdemeanor instead of a felony and HB 2479, that reduces the mandatory punishment for subsequent drug offenses. Gov. Mary Fallin is expected to sign.
South Carolina – Lawmakers considered HB 5120, a bill that would scale back the state’s truth-in-sentencing requirement from 85-percent to 65-percent.
Virginia – Gov. Terry McAuliffe used his executive authority to restore voting rights to persons with felony convictions who have completed their sentences. The action expands voting rights to more than 200,000 persons with a felony conviction.