Criminal Justice Reform included in 21st Century Cures Act

By Jamal R. Nelson, Council of State Governments Justice Center

The House passed a bill Wednesday on a sweeping medical innovation package that includes new research funding, mental health and criminal justice reforms, and grants to fight opioid abuse. The package known as the 21st Century Cures Act includes language to improve the nation’s mental health system and $1 billion over two years to help fight against opioid abuse. The bill is expected to pass the Senate.

The bill includes important mental health and criminal justice measures, such as the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act, which fixes the nation’s broken mental health system by refocusing programs, reforming grants, and removing federal barriers to care; the Mental Health and Safe Communities Act which strengthens federal programs related to mental health in the criminal justice system by enhancing the ability of families and communities to identify mental illness; and the Comprehensive Justice and Mental Health Act, which would update the Mentally Ill Offender and Treatment Crime Reduction Act (MIOTCRA) and facilitate collaboration among the criminal justice, juvenile justice, mental health treatment, and substance abuse systems to ensure those with mental illness receive the treatment and help they need.

Key provisions of the mental health/criminal justice sections of the Cures Act include:

·        Amends the Second Chance Act to allow state and local governments to use reentry demonstration project grant funds for the provision of mental health treatment and transitional services (including housing) for mentally ill offenders who are re-entering the community.

·         Amends the Second Chance Act to allow state and local governments to use reentry demonstration project grant funds under this program for the purpose of providing mental health services and to coordinate transitional services for individuals re-entering society with mental illness, substance abuse problems, or a chronic homelessness.

·        Requires the Attorney General to direct federal judges to operate mental health court pilot programs, allowing incarcerated mentally-ill offenders to be diverted from prison to residential treatment facilities or other forms of treatment-based supervised release.

·        Reauthorizes the Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Act (MIOTCRA), an essential funding mechanism that supports the use of mental health courts and crisis intervention teams in local law enforcement agencies. The bill would extend MIOTCRA, effectively filling critical gaps in the system, including providing additional resources for veterans’ treatment courts to help those suffering from behavioral or post-traumatic stress disorders.

·        Requires state and local governments to use drug court and mental health court funding to develop specialized programs for offenders who have co-occurring mental health and substance abuse disorders.

·         Updates the existing Prosecution Drug Treatment Alternatives to Incarceration Program statute to allow state and local governments to use grant funds under this program for creating and operating programs that divert individuals with mental illness and co-occurring disorders from prisons and jails pursuant to a court-supervised intensive treatment program. Current law only allows funds under this program to be used for addressing substance abuse issues.

·         Amends MIOTCRA to allow the Attorney General to use existing authorized funds to award grants to non-profit organizations for the creation of a National Criminal Justice and Mental Health Training Center. This entity would coordinate best practices on responding to mental illness in the criminal justice system, and would provide technical assistance to governmental agencies who wish to implement these best practices.

·        Authorizes funding for prison and jail-based programs, including transitional and re-entry programs that reduce the likelihood of recidivism when a mentally-ill offender is released.

·       Authorizes resources for expanded training activities, providing more officers with a basic understanding of the issues involved when responding situations with individuals with mental health crises.

Alert: Justice Department Files Brief to Address the Use of Criminal Background Checks by Housing Providers

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

"The Justice Department filed a statement of interest today arguing that the Fair Housing Act (FHA) requires that landlords who consider criminal records in evaluating prospective tenants do not use overly broad generalizations that disproportionately disqualify people based on a legally protected characteristic, such as race or national origin.

The statement of interest was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York in Fortune Society Inc. v. Sandcastle Towers Housing Development Fund Corp. et al.  The case was brought by an organization that helps formerly incarcerated individuals find housing challenging the practices of an affordable rental apartment complex with 917 units in Far Rockaway, Queens."

To see more go to the DoJ release statement

Unlocking Discrimination: A DC Area Testing Investigation About Racial Discrimination and Criminal Records Screening Policies in Housing

Posted on October 18, 2016 by

On Tuesday, October 18, 2016, the Equal Rights Center released, “Unlocking Discrimination: A DC Area Testing Investigation About Racial Discrimination and Criminal Records Screening Policies in Housing.” The report shares data that reveals criminal records screening policies used as proxies for race discrimination.

The investigation that formed the basis of the report utilized a civil rights testing methodology, commonly referred to as mystery shopping. Over the course of several months, the ERC instructed African American and white female testers posing as having similar criminal records to interact with local housing providers and express interest in renting an apartment. The testers reported back about their experiences and the ERC compared whether testers were treated differently on the basis of race. Testing occurred at apartment complexes throughout Washington, DC and Northern Virginia.

The report, along with more information about the investigation, findings and recommendations will be discussed during a webinar led by ERC’s Director of Fair Housing, Kate Scott, on Wednesday, October 19.

To view the full report, click here.

On the Outs: Reentry for Inmates with Disabilities

From Disability Rights Washington:

On The Outs: Reentry for Inmates with Disabilities is a short documentary produced by the Amplifying Voices of Inmates with Disabilities (AVID) Prison Project. On The Outs follows three inmates with various disabilities, including vision impairment, brain injury, and mental illness, through all stages of the reentry process. The documentary depicts each person’s experience at three points: in prison prior to release, on their release date, and life on the “outs” after release.

The film is intended to raise awareness about people with disabilities in prison, inspire communication about much-needed reentry reform, and encourage collaborative relationships among inmates, prison systems, advocates, and other interested stakeholders to address this issue

Documentary & Trailer for On the Outs

Criminal justice reform has housing impacts

by Rebekah King, National Housing Conference

Given the potential for Congress to pass criminal justice reform and release a large number of individuals from prison, housing providers should be thinking through how to respond to this population. Evidence shows that effective planning, services and housing can significantly reduce recidivism for ex-offenders, significantly reduce costs to the justice system and improve outcomes for these individuals. To serve ex-offenders, nonprofits, public housing agencies and landlords need an approach that isn’t overly burdensome or costly, protects existing residents and meets the goal of helping ex-offenders integrate back into society. Quite a tall order, but pilot programs and other strategies being tried could offer helpful models. 

  • The Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) board has approved significant changes to its admission rules for ex-offenders. The pending revisions would establish a review panel to assess each application for public housing and Section 8 vouchers individually, weighing each applicant’s background, severity of conviction, rehabilitation efforts since incarcerations and current circumstance. Depending upon the nature of the conviction, officials will either admit the applicant or send their application to a three-member panel for closer review. The policy is pending HUD approval and would also apply to private entities that manage HANO’s housing stock unless they can prove they are not legally obligated to do so.
  • The Oakland Housing Authority has implemented a policy allowing ex-offenders who apply and are rejected to appeal if they can show mitigating circumstances. Applicants can provide updated drug-screening and job-performance reports, recommendations from parole or probation officers and references from family members or clergy. Two-thirds of the applicants who appealed their initial rejections saw those decisions overturned.

These are two examples of programs being implemented, and we hope to share more we learn about other programs. 

Given research showing that criminal history does not provide good predictive information about housing success, and the possibility for significant criminal justice reform, exploring how to provide housing to ex-offenders is becoming increasingly important. Because of the negative stereotypes that affordable housing can face in general, serving this specific population can present even greater challenges. However, it also presents an opportunity to explore new ways to build community support and craft positive messages about affordable housing. Please email me with any best practices or models so we can learn more about housing ex-offenders and help inform practitioners.

Federal Interagency Reentry Council Issues Report on Progress and Roadmap for the Future

From the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH):

"To end homelessness, we must understand and address the housing needs of people exiting our nation's correctional facilities. 

The more than 20 federal agencies, including USICH, that make up the Federal Interagency Reentry Council released a new report on the Council's work to reduce recidivism and improve outcomes in housing, employment, education, health, and child welfare for individuals released from state and federal prisons."

Check out the next steps for housing stability in the report.

NLIHC Hosts Congressional Briefing on Why Housing Matters in Criminal Justice Reform


NLIHC and ten other organizations hosted a congressional briefing on June 24 titled “Why Housing Matters in Criminal Justice Reform.” Speakers discussed why we must ensure the reentry population has access to decent, affordable homes, the barriers to housing those individuals continue to face, and current efforts to revisit and reform policies that have worked to exclude people with criminal records from federally subsidized housing.

In her opening remarks, NLIHC Senior Policy Analyst Elayne Weiss applauded recent bipartisan support to reform the criminal justice system, but noted that work needs to be done to ensure housing resources are ready for the increasing reentry population that will result from those reforms. The briefing’s moderator, Kristen Clarke of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights under Law, added that policy barriers too often prevent justice-involved persons from accessing decent, affordable housing. She spoke of the role that housing plays not only in placing reentering individuals on a path to success, but in lifting up whole communities.

During the panel discussion, Cashauna Hill of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center discussed the work her organization has done to bring attention to the impact screening policies have on people of color. She explained that the use of blanket bans on justice-involved persons overwhelmingly placed people of color in the New Orleans area at risk of being rejected from housing, as these persons were overrepresented in the city’s incarcerated population. Hill praised the Housing Authority of New Orleans for implementing a policy that guarantees a more individualized review of an applicant’s criminal background.

JoAnne Page of the Fortune Society emphasized the importance of criminal background screening policies that support the reunification of reentering individuals with their families already living in federally assisted housing. She pointed to the collaboration around this issue already underway between the New York City Housing Authority, the Vera Institute, and other organizations like the Fortune Society. She also spoke of the Fortune Society’s housing program that helps formerly incarcerated persons return to their communities.

Department of Justice (DOJ) Second Chance Fellow Daryl Atkinson provided moving testimony of his own experience transitioning from incarceration to working at DOJ. While he emphasized that there may not exist a “silver bullet” solution to ensuring reentering persons transition successfully to life after incarceration, he explained that stable housing was crucial in his own reintegration process.

He said, “Imagine if we approached the successful reintegration of the 650,000 people that are released every year, the ten to eleven million that cycle in and out of jails, the 70 million - the one-in-three Americans - who have an arrest or conviction history, imagine if we approach them [as though] they are someone’s person, they’re someone’s son, that they’re someone’s loved one. That they are part of our American family and we welcome you home because everyone needs to be able to go home. Imagine if we had a policy framework that approached them that way. Imagine if our resources at the federal level supported them and their families that way to welcome them home. I would surmise our outcomes when it comes to reentry would look really, really different.”

Organizations that sponsored the briefing include: NLIHC, National Fair Housing Alliance, National Alliance to End Homelessness, Coalition for Juvenile Justice, Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center, National LGBTQ Task Force Action Fund, Fortune Society, Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities Housing Task Force, National Disability Rights Network, National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, and Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

How to help people with criminal records get a fair chance at housing

Jayme Day, National Alliance to End Homelessness

People re-entering the community from prisons and jails are more likely to be excluded from housing because they have criminal records. Criminal records are also barriers to jobs. Without housing and employment many people re-entering the community are at risk of homelessness. And those who are experiencing homelessness with a criminal record can be homeless longer.

At the last Alliance conferencein Oakland, Calif., Jeff Olivet from The Center for Social Innovation spoke in a workshop about racism and homelessness. He made one of those statements you can’t forget. It went something like this –

Deinstitutionalization in the 1970s-on was a good thing. However, we were not ready with enough community supports when thousands of people were released, and as a result many people with mental illness became homeless. Now we are seeing criminal justice reform, another good thing, happen. This will mean greater numbers of people will be released from prisons and jails. We must be ready to integrate people with criminal records into our community or we will see the same dismal result.

Here are four things to be thinking about and ways you can help.

1. Ending housing discrimination

Twelve percent of the U.S. population is African American; however 40% of the population experiencing homelessness is African American. That’s a big difference. The criminal justice system disproportionately arrests and convicts people of color. Currently, many housing providers use criminal records as an excuse to say no to people of color seeking housing, whether purposely or inadvertently.

>> We need to recognize when criminal records are being used as an excuse to discriminate against people of color. We need to provide ways to make landlords our allies and provide legal means to address discrimination.

2. Connecting housing providers with re-entry providers

So far there is a lot of encouraging work on re-entry across the country. Specifically Second Chance Act providers and other campaigns such as the Stepping Up Initiative are trying to lower the number of people incarcerated and connect people re-entering the community with employment, benefits, family, treatment programs and other services they need to avoid returning to jail or prison.  These programs are also targeting chronically homeless people.

>> We need to take steps to connect these providers with housing and homeless service providers. The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness has created a tip sheet targeted to criminal justice related providers on how they can break the cycle of incarceration and homelessness.

3. Educating landlords and PHAs on criminal records

Another bright spot is the recent release of guidance from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development on housing and criminal records. One guidance document is directed to public housing authorities (PHA) and says PHAs may not use arrest records alone to deny housing. PHAs must take a holistic look at someone’s background before denying them housing. The second guidance document is directed landlords and says that use of criminal records to make housing decisions (who to rent to, who to evict) violates the Fair Housing Act if use of records results in housing disparities by race, national origin, or other protected class.

>> We need to make sure this guidance gets into the hands of landlords and public housing authorities and work with them to determine ways to lower barriers to housing including changing their screening criteria.  Here is a summary of the guidance to help with this process.

4. April 24 – 30th is Re-entry Week

Finally, this week is #ReentryWeek and we must use this opportunity to raise awareness. Use this as an opportunity to take stock of how well housing and criminal justice systems are connected and what you and your organizations can do to raise awareness and stop the cycle of incarceration and homelessness.

>> Help us raise awareness during #ReentryWeek by sharing the blog and linked documents on your websites and on social media.