This week is National Reentry week, a time when the Department of Justice and other federal agencies, returning citizens, and advocates work to raise awareness of our nation’s need to reform our criminal justice system and better reintegrate formerly incarcerated individuals into society. In the United States, nearly 100 million adults have criminal records and currently 2.2 million adults are in prison.
Yesterday, the White House hosted a briefing entitled “The Consequences of the Criminal Justice System,” which included leading experts from the American Enterprise Institute, the Brennan Center for Justice, and the White House Council of Economic Advisors. Senior Advisor to the President, Valerie Jarrett, opened the briefing with the central message: “If we reform our criminal justice system our communities will be safer and our economy will be stronger.” While describing important research, panelists demonstrated how mass incarceration contributes significantly to poverty, income inequality, and family instability. Fixing the damage will be difficult, and any reform must include community based programs to improve access to early childhood education, healthcare, and housing, implement better community policing practices, and much more.
Drug arrests comprise half the arrests in our criminal justice system, and approximately half of those are marijuana arrests—the vast majority of which are for simple possession for personal use. Arrests and prosecutions for drug offenses fall disproportionately on African-Americans and Latinos, despite usage among Caucasians at similar rates. Recently, the Department of Housing and Urban Development issued important guidance on the application of the Fair Housing Act standards in regards to applicants with criminal records. Individuals that were formerly incarcerated, or were convicted but not incarcerated, and even in some cases individuals with an arrest record, face significant barriers in securing housing. Above all, this guidance warns housing providers of discriminating against applicants on the basis of race or national origin. If two applicants of similar criminal records apply to rent an apartment, one Caucasian and another African American, yet only the African American applicant is denied housing, this exclusion constitutes discrimination. This may seem like a clear case of racial discrimination but it’s important considering that in 2014, 36% of the prison population was African American yet African Americans made up only 12% of the total U.S. population.
In order to truly give returning citizens a fair shot at rejoining communities and contributing to our economy, it is important to make sure that they have access to basic services that so many of us take for granted. Fair access to housing is a good place to start.