Today, the Washington Post published an article title Ex-Cons But Still Barred, looking at the city of Chicago’s reconsideration of restrictions on people with criminal records living in public housing.  

Bans on former offenders living in public housing came out of the “get tough on crime” sentiment that swept throughout much of the 1990s. However, as more and more offenders sent to prison and jail during this time are now being released, there is a growing awareness of the failings of these policies – as they create significant barriers to former offenders successfully transitioning back to their communities and contribute to our high rates of recidivism, thus making our communities less safe. Most notably, recently, New York City Department of Corrections released data showing that 22% of prisoners paroled last year from state prison listed homeless shelters as their primary address. In response the city began testing a program that would allow certain inmates to move in with their family upon release. Similarly, the New Orleans Housing Authority has implemented a policy stating that a criminal background check will not automatically result in a rejection when applying for housing.

Collateral consequences such as public housing bans are not only counterproductive through the lense of public safety but also, throw into question the very values of our justice system. When a person is convicted of a crime, they must repay society for their wrongdoing by serving a sentenced imposed by judge. This also serves the purpose of deterring that person (as well as others) from committing future crimes and ideally in most cases would offer the opportunity for rehabilitation, with the goal of returning  our former incarcerated citizenry back into our communities as law-abiding citizens.

Today, we have the largest system of punishment in United States history. We are locking away record numbers of people for record amounts of time – disproportionately the people of color, the poor and people suffering from mental illness. While in prison, we isolate people from their friends, families, communities and support networks. Additionally, while incarcerated, prisoners are  often subject to inhumane conditions, such as, for exampled, prolonged isolation in solitary confinement. However, once released, collateral consequences such as bans on public housing allow us to continue to punish. They send the message that once a person has committed a crime - whether it is a violent crime or low-level non-violent one -  society has license to continue to exclude the from our communities, legally discriminate against them and deny them their basic constitutional rights.

It is time to break our addiction to punishment. We are increasingly becoming aware of the failings of current criminal justice policies. They are unfair, ineffective, and often devastating to our communities. We need to recognize that it is time to refocus our correctional priorities and polices towards rehabilitation, and build a system that not only will keep our communities safer but is more compassionate and fair.