Recommendations For Ensuring Successful Reintegration After Incarceration
The Second Chance Act
Federal Role is Essential in Reentry Programming
Second Chance Act funding makes it possible for states to test old and the develop and test new program models, introduce different approaches to addressing reentry, and disseminate information and research to guide states as they address the complex challenge of prisoner reentry. Without the Second Chance Act, each individual state would be left to devise solutions to its version of a national problem that is of much greater scope and very different from what it was in the past. Without a federal role, states would waste resources reinventing solutions to complex problems, duplicating both mistakes and successes in reentry programming. The Act’s reauthorization and full funding is critical to continue and strengthen the ground-breaking work it supports to reduce recidivism and enhance public safety.
Reauthorize and Fully Fund the Second Chance Act
Congress should reauthorize and fully fund the Second Chance Act47 to expand access to reentry support services nationwide.
The Attorney General should oversee and coordinate Second Chance reentry programs with reentry programs in other federal agencies through the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) new Inter-agency Reentry Working Group that the Attorney General convened on January 5, 2011.48
Former Prisoners are Denied the Right to Vote
Denying individuals the right to vote even after they have repaid their debts to society perpetuates the insidious discrimination against this population that makes reentry so difficult. Furthermore, voting encourages individuals to become engaged in their communities and to engage in socially responsible conduct, improving chances for successful reentry and reducing recidivism.49 Denying the franchise to people who should instead recommit themselves to the social contract is counterproductive to public safety and community well-being.
Extend Federal Voting Rights to People Released from Prison
Congress should pass legislation similar to the Democracy Restoration Act50 to restore the rights of individuals released from prison to vote in federal elections. The legislation has a broad and diverse base of public support including leaders in the law enforcement and criminal justice field, clergy and faith-based organizations, voting rights and civil rights groups and criminal justice advocates.51
The DOJ should appoint a commission to document the de facto disenfranchisement of eligible voters with felony convictions in each of the 50 states. This will provide policymakers with reliable information upon which to base decisions regarding voting rights restoration policies they enact or enforce.
Welfare and Food Stamp Benefits for Individuals with Drug Felony Convictions
Individuals with Drug Felony Convictions are Permanently Barred from Benefits
Individuals convicted with drug felonies are permanently barred from obtaining cash assistance and food stamps, even after completing their sentences or overcoming their addictions. The ban denies necessary cash assistance to individuals seeking to improve their lives, as well as their dependent children. It also exacerbates the financial pressures that lead many individuals to commit financially motivated crimes and cause stress that can trigger relapse into active addiction.52
Restore Benefits to Individuals with Drug Felony Convictions
Congress should eliminate the lifetime ban on TANF and food stamp eligibility for people with drug felony convictions by repealing Section 115(a) of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996.53 Two bills were introduced during the 111th Congress to address this issue: the Food Assistance to Improve Reintegration Act,54 introduced by Representative Barbara Lee; and a bill to restore eligibility for benefits under Temporary Assistance for Needy Families to people with drug felony convictions,55 introduced by Representative Andre Carson.
Unintended Impact of Financial Aid Ban for Students with Drug Convictions
Students with Drug Conviction are Barred from Receiving Federal Student Financial Aid
By preventing individuals in need from obtaining the education and training necessary to become more desirable candidates for employment and to advance in their careers, the drug felony ban, rather than acting as a deterrent to crime, serves as a barrier to success and to the empowerment of communities where individuals are unlikely to be able to access educational opportunities without financing from the federal government.
Repeal the Unintended Drug Ban on Federal Student Aid
Congress should pass legislation to fully repeal the drug offense ban on federal student aid from the Higher Education Act.56 The drug offense ban on federal student aid prevents individuals from obtaining the education they need to access better employment opportunities, even though many of those affected by the ban were actively addicted to drugs when they engaged in the conduct for which they were convicted, and have since entered into or completed treatment for their addictions. Congress should repeal that ban in recognition of the critical role education plays in reducing recidivism.
The Department of Education should eliminate the question about drug convictions from the FAFSA and implement another mechanism to confirm the eligibility of applicants for financial aid. The FAFSA continues to ask applicants to disclose their drug offense histories without specifying that drug convictions obtained while the applicant was not receiving federal student financial aid are irrelevant to student aid eligibility. This question discourages many qualified applicants from further pursuing federal student aid due to their mistaken belief that a conviction in their past excludes them.
Barriers to Housing
Former Prisoners Face Unfair Barriers to Housing
Federal public housing law contains provisions that require or permit local authorities to limit, exclude, or permanently deny Section 8 and other federally assisted housing to certain individuals, including those with criminal records. Further, those with criminal records often find that their record is the main stumbling block to obtaining private sector housing, as many housing authorities and private landlords use overly restrictive policies to exclude people with conviction records who pose no threat to the public, tenants or property.
Remove Unfair Barriers to Housing
Congress should amend 42 U.S.C. §1437d(k) by passing legislation similar to the No One Strike Eviction Act,57 which would require public housing authorities to provide administrative grievance procedures for one-strike evictions of recipients of publicly assisted housing for criminal activity. It would also provided protections from eviction for family members of individuals engaged in criminal activity. Congress also should amend Subpart D of part IV of subchapter A of chapter 1 of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 by passing legislation similar to the Public Safety Ex-Offender Self Sufficiency Act,58 which would create a tax credit for investment in low-income housing for individuals with criminal records who participate in supportive programming.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) should encourage public housing authorities and private landlords who take HUD subsidies to adopt policies that, rather than barring applicants who have criminal records, make an individualized assessment of each applicant’s suitability for public housing. HUD should also develop guidance for public housing authorities and their staffs about the requirements of federal law with respect to the use of HUD funds to support housing for individuals with criminal records.
Expand employment opportunities for people with criminal records
Individuals with Criminal Records Face Barriers to Employment
A number of federal policies create or authorize the creation of barriers that prevent individuals with criminal records from obtaining employment for which they are qualified and in which they pose no increased risk to public safety. Other policies prevent these same individuals from obtaining the knowledge or skills they need to advance in the labor market. Reducing barriers in employment will improve public safety, reduce correctional spending and other costs associated with mass incarceration, including the maintenance of children of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals, and promote the well-being and productive citizenship of individuals with criminal records.
Remove or Reduce Barriers to Employment
There are a number of steps Congress can take to expand and improve employment opportunities for individuals with criminal records. First, Congress should amend the Higher Education Act59 to restore Pell Grant eligibility for in-prison education programs so that individuals can obtain the education that will make them competitive in the employment market after they are released.
Second, Congress should create a federal standard requiring employers to consider the relationship between an applicant’s criminal history and the position being sought, the length of time since an offense was committed, the severity of an offense, and any evidence of rehabilitation. Congress should also modify federal profession-specific restrictions on employment to not only include requirements for individualized determinations, but also to include graduated periods of consideration of the criminal records based on the severity of the crime. In no case should consideration of a criminal record be permitted beyond eight years after an individual’s reaching the age of majority, conviction, or release from prison, whichever occurs latest.60
Third, Congress should reduce the unintended and unfair consequences of the widespread availability of Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) background checks conducted for employment and retention purposes by passing legislation similar to the proposed Fairness and Accuracy in Employment Background Checks Act,61 which would have required the FBI to update and verify information in the reports it submits to employers conducting background checks. In performing roughly 6 million background checks per year for employment purposes, the FBI relies on state records, half of which the Attorney General believes are incomplete or inaccurate.62 These “rap sheets” often report incorrect information, information about arrests without any information about the dispositions of the cases, and information about non-serious or extremely old convictions that undoubtedly make qualified candidates less able to successfully compete in an already tight job market. Providing inaccurate or incorrect information to employers is not only an injustice to the job applicant, but also a major disservice to the employer in need of qualified workers.
Fourth, Congress should reauthorize the Workforce Investment Act (WIA),63 which provides funding and directives for the delivery of employment services including assessment, training, and placement services. The Act should be reauthorized with provisions for hard-to-serve populations, including those individuals with criminal histories, through the WIA one-stop systems, which provide information about and access to a wide array of job training, education, and employment services at a single neighborhood location. Further, Congress should increase funding for WIA programming aimed at serving hard-to-serve individuals, including those with criminal records.
Finally, Congress should strengthen the Work Opportunity Tax Credit64 for individuals with criminal records by (i) increasing the tax credit for hiring individuals with criminal records to match the tax credit available for hiring long-term family assistance recipients, and (ii) extending the tax credit to cover the same amount of wages paid during the second year of employment to encourage employers to retain hard-to-serve individuals. Increasing the amount and duration of the tax credit will encourage employers who might otherwise be wary to hire and retain qualified employees with criminal records who pose no increased risk to their employers, co-workers, or customers. Further, in appropriate circumstances, employers who take advantage of federal-sourced funds or tax incentives designed to induce private businesses to move to or remain in a state or locality should be encouraged, if not required, to hire individuals with criminal records on the same competitive basis that it would hire people without criminal convictions.
The Department of Labor should increase the amount the federal bonding program indemnifies employers who hire individuals with criminal records or who otherwise qualify for bonding. The current level ranges from $5,000 to $25,000 per bond. The Department could raise all bonds to a uniform $25,000.65
Expand Access to Drug and Alcohol Treatment and Recovery
Insufficient Attention to the Link between Addiction and Recidivism
While addiction is a preventable, treatable disease, untreated addiction is a major cause of crime and recidivism. Often the only time individuals have the opportunity to access addictions services is through their involvement in the criminal justice system. Further, some former prisoners face barriers to obtaining addiction treatment following their release from prison because of state laws restricting the driver’s licenses of drug offenders. Ensuring that these individuals have access to addiction treatment services, and reducing or eliminating barriers that prevent individuals from obtaining addiction treatment will improve public health and safety while saving taxpayers money on corrections spending.
Remove Barriers and Disincentives to Addiction Treatment
Congress should increase funding for the Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment Block Grant,66 the formula grant administered by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). This grant delivers vital federal funding to states, territories, and tribes to support substance abuse and mental health prevention and treatment programs. It is the only federal grant that provides funding to all states for these important services, and its continued robust funding is critical to our citizens’ behavioral healthcare, particularly over the next few years while healthcare reform is implemented.
Congress should also amend the Federal Highway Apportionment Act to encourage states to limit driver’s license suspensions and revocations to individuals convicted of driving-related drug offenses, rather than to individuals convicted of any drug-related offense. and to allow states with such restricted licenses to receive full federal funding of their highways. This will allow individuals in recovery to attend work, healthcare appointments, and needed addiction treatment or support.
The President should include a request for increased funding of the Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment Block in the Administration’s fiscal year 2012 budget proposal.
SAMHSA should engage in outreach and technical assistance efforts to educate drug court professionals and judges, as well as parole and probation professionals, about the effectiveness of medication-assisted treatment. SAMHSA should also publish guidance for drug court professionals and judges about the benefits of medication-assisted treatment.
DOT should amend its regulations that prevent individuals who are taking methadone and stabilized in treatment from obtaining a commercial driver’s license, to allow such individuals to qualify for the existing prescription drug exception in the same way as individuals receiving any other type of medication-assisted healthcare.67 Such an amendment will both allow former prisoners to find employment, but also remove current disincentives from obtaining and continuing much needed addiction treatment.
Drug court judges should receive additional training about the benefits of medication assisted treatment of drug addictions, such as methadone maintenance treatment for opiate addiction. According to the National Association of State Alcohol and Drug Abuse Directors, many drug court judges “completely reject the evidence regarding [Methadone Maintenance Treatment] efficacy and efficiency, viewing opiate addiction as a purely social problem best resolved by imposed abstinence while the offender is in the correctional setting.”68
Expand Access to Mental Health and Income Support Services
Mental Health and Income Support Services are Unavailable upon Release from Prison
Access to federal disability and health benefits is a critical component of successful reentry into the community for individuals released from jail or prison. This is particularly important for individuals with mental illnesses who cycle through corrections facilities repeatedly. Often the event leading to arrest is linked to both lack of income and unmet need for services, such as mental health and addiction treatment, and supports, such as housing and employment. 69 However, many recently released prisoners or inmates find themselves without Supplemental Security Income, Medicaid, and other mental health and income support services they need to survive outside of prison and avoid recidivism.
Increase Immediate Access to Much Needed Support Programs
Congress should pass legislation similar to the Recidivism Reduction Act (RRA)70 to provide timely restoration of federal disability and health benefits to individuals with a mental illness upon reentry into the community. RRA would reinstate provisional benefits for eligible individuals with a mental illness whose SSI benefits have been suspended for no more than 12 months or terminated for no more than 36 months. Reinstatement would occur on the day of their release from incarceration. The legislation would also provide for immediate reinstatement of Medicaid upon release for individuals enrolled prior to incarceration, and provide up to three case management services to incarcerated individuals to assist in planning for and obtaining post-release services.
The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) should provide technical assistance to states to ensure that inmates Medicaid enrollment is not terminated, but rather suspened for the term of their incarceration. CMS should issue a State Medicaid Director Letter to explain and articulate federal law in this area and assist states in implementing suspension, rather than termination of Medicaid benefits.
The President should include a request for increased funding of the mental health and criminal justice collaboration grant71 in the fiscal year 2012 budget proposal. The mental health and criminal justice collaboration grant, administered by DOJ, provides grants to assist with diversion, treatment, and transition services for youth and adults with mental illness who come into contact with law enforcement.
The President should also include a request for increased funding of the Jail Diversion Program72 in the fiscal year 2012 budget proposal. The Jail Diversion Program grant, administered by the Center for Mental Health Services within SAMHSA, assists with diverting individuals with serious mental illness and co-occurring substance use disorders from jail to community-based treatment and support services.
Expand and Improve Relief from Collateral Consequences
Collateral Consequences of Remain with Individuals Long after their Release
Policies that create barriers to employment, education, civic participation, public benefits, housing, medical care, and substance abuse treatment, to name a few, make it increasingly difficult for a person in reentry to remain crime-free and to become a positively contributing member of his or her community. Many of these policies are permanent, impacting individuals long after they have repaid their debts to society and demonstrated their ability to live as law-abiding citizens.
Reduce or Remove Collateral Consequences of Incarceration
Congress should create a program that permits individuals charged with certain federal crimes to avoid a conviction record by successfully completing a period of probation. This could be accomplished either by: (i) expanding the Federal First Offender Act73 in a manner similar to the Federal First Offender Improvement Act,74 which would make available pre-judgment probation and eventual expungement for individuals who have not previously been convicted of a felony, or (ii) reinstating the set-aside authority in the Youth Corrections Act75, and extending it to all first felony offenders eligible for probation.76 In addition, for people with a federal conviction, Congress should enact an expungement or sealing remedy that would be available after a waiting period (e.g., five years for misdemeanors, 10 years for felonies).
Congress should catalogue all collateral sanctions and disqualifications in federal statutes and regulations, and consider whether any of them should be repealed or made subject to waiver. Congress should enact a relief mechanism to enable state and federal offenders to avoid or mitigate federal collateral consequences, similar to the ones that now apply to federal firearms disabilities, federal jury service, and deportation.
The President should expand the use of and improve the process for receiving executive clemency in the form of Presidential pardons.77