President Obama’s move to commute prison sentences highlights affordable housing needs of people with criminal records

November 9, 2016
By Jacob Schmidt, NLIHC Policy Intern
Jacob Schmidt, Policy Intern

President Obama and his administration have led the charge in pushing for criminal justice reform and has commuted a total of 872 inmates since 2014. He granted clemency to another 98 inmates at the end of last month and has now commuted more individuals than the past 11 presidents combined. Through these commutations, President Obama has sought to correct some of the harms created by harsh federal laws that require mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses.

While President Obama should be commended for these efforts, the next question we as a nation need to be thinking about is: what housing and supportive services will be available to people exiting prisons and jails to ensure their smooth transition back to society?

Without addressing the housing needs of the reentry population, more and more of these recently released individuals will fall into homelessness.

Katina Smith had her sentence commuted in 2015 and was lucky enough to have a family who had the means to welcome her back home. Katina, who happens to be the mother of Demaryius Thomas, a Pro Bowl wide receiver for the Denver Broncos, said, “If it wasn’t for God and for my son being in the position he’s in and my sister being able to help me, I could have easily been homeless.”

If our country is serious about reducing its prison populations, we must provide formerly incarcerated individuals with housing to act as a stabilizing platform where they can get back on their feet; otherwise, they’ll likely end up back in prison. Affordable housing has been shown to reduce recidivism rates among the reentry population.

Justice-involved individuals face too many barriers in accessing affordable housing. Many public housing authorities (PHAs) bar individuals with criminal records from living in federally-assisted housing. Housing providers may also use unreasonably long lookback periods into applicants’ criminal history, and often neglect to provide opportunities for applicants to show that they’ve rehabilitated and can be good tenants. The use of discretionary policy making disproportionately impact people of color and people with disabilities.

Fortunately, HUD has taken steps to advise landlords, including PHAs, that tenant screening policies imposing blanket bans on people with criminal records likely violate the Fair Housing Act. Representative Maxine Waters (D-CA) has also introduced legislation, the Fair Chance at Housing Act (H.R. 5085), that seeks to reform the way federally-assisted housing providers can screen or evict a household based on criminal history.

As we approach a new Congress and Administration, NLIHC and our partners in the Reentry and Housing Coalition, will continue to raise awareness about the housing needs of people with criminal records. Until we ensure people have a stable and affordable place to call home after leaving incarceration, efforts in reforming our criminal justice system will not be fully realized.

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