Stay Updated on News from YSRP! Here we will share opinion pieces that relate to our work, written by YSRP staff, volunteers and supporters. Please check regularly for updated content!
The Trouble with Securing Subsidized Housing with a Criminal Record
By Charlotte Levins, Esq.
Each of us knows how important having a safe and stable place to sleep each night is for our ability to maintain jobs, relationships, and health. Having a roof over our heads seems so fundamental that it is easy to forget that there are millions of people in this country who don’t know whether they will have a roof to sleep under on any given day. Further, international and U.S. policies have long recognized that adequate and secure housing is crucial for human survival. However, despite the fact that the U.S. provides federally subsidized housing to millions of low-income individuals who otherwise could not afford homes, strict policies exclude millions of people with criminal records and ultimately condemn them to transient living. Even the slightest brush with the criminal justice system can seriously impact a person’s ability to obtain decent and stable housing.
Individuals with criminal records are often excluded from public housing in the name of public safety. The connection between criminal records and public safety, however, is tenuous at best. While it is true that some with prior convictions could still pose a threat to other tenants, many are denied subsidized housing despite the fact that they have turned their lives around or never initially posed a risk at all. Instead, overly restrictive policies against individuals with criminal records frequently create a cycle where the inability to reintegrate into the community increases homelessness, and homelessness in turn increases the probability for subsequent criminal acts and re-incarceration. It is challenging to remain a law-abiding citizen when one is living in the street. This blog post will provide background information on the government agencies, programs and policies that provide and curtail opportunities for public housing, and also offers insight as to why some of those policies are misguided.
The United States has long acknowledged the correlation of housing and the welfare of its people. The United States Housing Act of 1937 established as national policy that:
[I]t is the responsibility of the Government to promote and protect the independent and collective actions of private citizens to develop housing and strengthen their own neighborhoods . . . . Our Nation should promote the goal of providing decent and affordable housing for all citizens through the efforts and encouragement of Federal, State and local government, and by the independent and collective actions of private citizens, organizations, and the private sector.
Nevertheless, despite the government’s goal of providing decent and affordable housing for “all citizens,” for many individuals with a criminal past, especially those with felony convictions, it is extremely difficult to secure public housing. Those convicted of a felony are often automatically ineligible for public housing for a period of at least five years. While the term felony sounds, and undoubtedly is, serious, consider that the following actions constitute felonies in various states: receipt of stolen property, counterfeiting, drug abuse violations, and possessing a gun without a license. In addition, there are millions of individuals who have been convicted of simple misdemeanors, such as trespass, disorderly conduct, public intoxication, and driving without a license, and millions who were merely arrested but never convicted of any offense. These individuals can be and often are excluded from public housing on the basis of their criminal records as well.
In many communities, including those in Pennsylvania, the Public Housing Authority (PHA) is the primary resource for accessing public housing. In Philadelphia specifically, the PHA administers housing assistance programs such as the Housing Choice Voucher Program (a federal program that subsidizes rent for homes in the private market – the voucher is portable and can be transferred to a new home once a lease is terminated) and manages Project-Based Section 8 properties (subsidized rental units – the subsidy is NOT portable, and when one moves out of the property, he loses the rental subsidy). In this article, “the PHA” refers the Philadelphia Housing Authority, and “PHAs” refers to Public Housing Authorities, which are found in many cities throughout the U.S. The PHAs’ written admissions policies contain their screening criteria for applicants with criminal records. Depending on the program, these policies carry different labels: admissions and continued occupancy policies (ACOPs) for public housing and administrative plans for the Housing Choice Voucher program.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is the federal agency that administers affordable housing programs. HUD reviews admissions policies that are created by the PHAs to determine whether they are consistent with federal housing policy. HUD requires that all PHAs perform criminal background checks on all potential tenants and household members. Thus, if one household member has a criminal record, the entire household can be denied housing, an obstacle that many of YSRP’s clients have faced. Federal law requires that Public Housing Authorities (PHAs) automatically deny subsidized housing to individuals convicted of certain offenses and also allows PHAs to exercise discretion when considering those with other marks on their criminal records. Public housing agencies are required to deny admission to households with family members with the following types of convictions: lifetime sex-offender registrants and those convicted of methamphetamine production on public housing premises. (24 CFR 982.553) Individuals with these convictions can never be admitted to any federally subsidized housing program.
PHAs also have a great deal of discretion to create local admission policies for individuals with histories of criminal activity and the use of illegal substances. PHAs may decline admission for a number of reasons, including but not limited to: 1) those who have engaged in any drug-related, violent, or other criminal activity during a reasonable time period prior to the application for housing if it would negatively affect the health or safety of other residents; 2) those who have a history of drug or alcohol abuse that may interfere with the health or safety of other residents; and 3) if any member of a household or household guest engages in criminal activity that threatens the health, safety, or right to peaceful enjoyment of the premises or any drug-related criminal activity, on or off the premises. (24 CFR 982.553) It is important to consider that many crimes that the PHAs often consider violent do not involve violence to another person (such as vandalism). However, violent crimes generally include homicide, assault, domestic violence, abuse/neglect of a child, elderly, or disabled person, home invasion, and crimes involving gang-activity or firearm possession.
The HUD guidelines highlighted above invite great room for interpretation. For example, although HUD guidelines suggest that the reasonable time period prior to the application for housing is five years, PHAs can still exercise broad discretion when defining the concept of “reasonable time period.” Some admissions policies consider criminal history dating back ten or twenty years, and others forgo the “reasonable time period” consideration altogether and permanently ban applicants who have ever been convicted of criminal activity.
In addition, the provisions in the HUD guidelines that grant PHAs wide discretion to deny housing to anyone that could ever possibly interfere with the health or safety of residents are problematic. Because this language is so nebulous, many PHAs interpret these provisions to grant them authority to deny housing to an applicant who has any record of causing a “disturbance,” or who could create a “disorderly house.” In Norfolk, Virginia, for example, applicants can be denied public housing if they have been convicted in the past 10 years of “immoral conduct of any type.” The author has even encountered cases where victims of domestic violence are denied public housing because the act of domestic violence created a “disturbance.”*
Furthermore, many PHAs automatically deny eligibility to an applicant with a criminal record without considering any mitigating circumstances or rehabilitation efforts. Factors such as these are often only considered if and when an applicant for housing seeks administrative review of a denial of eligibility. Those who are able to secure legal representation have a better chance of winning these appeals, but oftentimes applicants are unable to secure a lawyer. Many applicants cannot afford to hire private counsel, and legal service organizations are often understaffed and underfunded, which keeps access to legal services for the indigent very limited.
Another reason that individuals with criminal records are often turned away from public or subsidized housing is the fact that there is simply not enough subsidized housing to meet demand. In Philadelphia, people are on the waitlist for public housing for an average of 8-10 years and there isn’t anything that can be done to move up on the list sooner. Additionally, the waitlist is often closed. As of the date of this article, for example, the PHA’s wait lists for both the Housing Choice Voucher and Public Housing programs are both closed (with the exception of senior and other special housing programs). Categorically denying individuals with criminal records is a relatively simple way to whittle down the pile of applications for subsidized housing, but it is not the fairest or most ethical way.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Montgomery v. Louisiana earlier this year could mean that thousands of individuals nationwide, as well as hundreds in Pennsylvania alone, who were originally sentenced to life without parole as juveniles, will find themselves in need of housing upon their release. The Court held in Montgomery that its previous ruling in Miller v. Alabama, which held that a mandatory life sentence without parole should not apply to juveniles convicted of murder, must be applied retroactively. U.S. lawmakers must draft housing policies that ensure that these individuals, who have been imprisoned since they were teenagers, have a fair chance at creating a decent and stable life upon release. Approximately one in 10 people being released from prison will experience homelessness in the future. The individuals affected by the Montgomery decision will likely face even greater challenges in obtaining housing, as they have served lengthy prison sentences and may not have any family or friends in the outside world to whom they could return. And even if they do have family or friends, if their family or friends are receiving subsidized rent, the individual may not be able to return home without seriously jeopardizing the household’s rent subsidy. Countless men and women, sentenced to die in prison as children, have turned their lives around. Unless these restrictive housing policies change, men and women returning to the community from prison will be destined to live on the streets, in crowded shelters, in vile motels, or crowded into in the homes of friends and family.
The weight of the strict housing policies highlighted above have significant consequences for law-abiding families residing in subsidized housing. Although many would like to house family members who were previously incarcerated, or who have marks on their criminal records, these policies often prevent those with criminal histories from reuniting with their families. For obvious reasons, this contributes to the high recidivism rates in our city, and many others. The consequence of failing to disclose a household member’s criminal record can be disastrous, as it often results in eviction from subsidized housing or loss of a Section 8 voucher. Considering that approximately 100 million people in the United States have a criminal record (roughly one out of three Americans), the effects of these restrictive policies on families and communities are extensive. The penalties outweigh the crime, if there even was a crime committed in the first place. Instead of trying to help people obtain affordable housing, it seems that we are searching for any possible reason to keep them out.
*Charlotte is an attorney at a non-profit organization that assists low-income individuals in civil legal matters.
How Does YSRP Compare to N.Y.C. Juvenile Defense and Juvenile Justice Organizations?
By Anna Matejcek, NYU Law Student (class of ’16) and YSRP Volunteer
People often ask, how is YSRP different from existing organizations that work with court-involved youth? In Philadelphia, YSRP works collaboratively with many nonprofit organizations to provide long-term and holistic advocacy to youth being charged in the adult criminal justice system and their families (which will be the subject of a future blog post!). Given our proximity to New York City, we often receive questions about how we are similar to or different from nonprofits there. This blog post describes the work of some of the most prominent organizations that serve court-involved youth in New York City and attempts to highlight aspects of how their service-delivery model compares to YSRP’s.
The New York City juvenile justice landscape is home to a variety of nonprofit organizations providing different combinations of legal and social services to the city’s court-involved youth. Youth face “unique challenges in terms of maintaining their engagement in a legal proceeding, as their brain development is not the same as that of an adult: they struggle to conceptualize long-term consequences,” says Maire O’Malley, Staff Attorney & Chief Development Officer at Youth Represent, a local juvenile reentry organization.
In order to address these and other specific needs of young clients, NYC juvenile justice organizations take an overwhelmingly holistic approach to defending and supporting children facing charges in family court or criminal court. As Randy Hertz, Professor of Clinical Law at New York University School, notes, juvenile justice practitioners in the city, like YSRP, have realized that meeting children’s non-legal needs is often “crucial to getting a good sentence” in criminal court, or a good disposition in family court.
There are two broad categories of juvenile defense and juvenile justice organizations in NYC: (1) Organizations that primarily provide public defense services; and (2) Organizations that provide social services and reentry support to court-involved youth. As YSRP is doing with longer-standing service providers in Philadelphia, these organizations often partner with each other to comprehensively address the complex needs of court-involved children.
Legal Aid’s Criminal Defense Practice (CDP) and the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem represent youth in removal hearings as well as in adult criminal court. They also represent children aged sixteen to eighteen who are being prosecuted as adults. Legal Aid’s Juvenile Rights Practice represents children in Family Court delinquency proceedings. In each of these respects, Legal Aid is similar to the Defender Association of Philadelphia; both of these organizations primarily provide legal defense services but also have social workers on staff and work with juvenile reentry and support organizations, like YSRP, to provide their young clients with outstanding holistic representation.
For example, Legal Aid’s CDP established the Adolescent Intervention and Diversion Project, which offers support to adolescents being prosecuted in adult criminal court. Through the project, attorneys and social workers at Legal Aid’s CDP provide young clients with individualized legal and educational advocacy. This often includes intensive therapy services for court-involved youth and their families and referrals to educational programs. Through this program, the CDP has reduced the detention time their adolescent clients serve as well as recidivism rates. This is similar to the services provided by the Juvenile Special Defense Unit (JSDU) at the Defender Association in Philadelphia.
Similarly, the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem collaborates with a community-based organization called Esperanza to provide effective holistic advocacy to many of their young clients. Esperanza provides alternatives to detention, placement and incarceration for court-involved youth. The organization offers direct services to children and their families or caregivers, including individual and family care, and case management. In addition, Esperanza refers clients to services available at other community-based organizations. In this way, Esperanza facilitates access to the types of services that YSRP refers clients to at a variety of individual Philadelphia organizations. Esperanza staff work with families to develop and implement comprehensive behavior management plans for court-involved youths, monitor curfews, communicate with children’s schools, and provide educational and vocational planning.
Youth Represent is another reentry and support organizations that works primarily with young people who have come in contact with adult criminal court. Generally, the organization provides legal representation to clients in circumstances where they would not otherwise be entitled to representation, such as in employment discrimination claims, school suspension hearings, and in Family Court proceedings for custody and child support. The average age of Youth Represent’s clients is a little over 20. In this way, Youth Represent differs from YSRP, in that YSRP’s clients must be under 18 at the time the offense occurred for which they are charged as adults. Also unlike YSRP, Youth Represent’s criminal legal representation is limited to instances where they have an ongoing relationship with the client, or when the organization’s attorneys feel that they are better positioned than a traditional public defender to represent a client, such as in a bench warrant return.
CASES, also a New York City reentry and support organization, works with judges, district attorneys and defense lawyers to hold court-involved youths accountable and provides young people with alternatives to detention. The organization is home to the Court Employment Project (CEP), an alternative-to-incarceration program for youth aged 16-24 facing felony charges. CASES staff at the New York Supreme Court advocate for court-involved youths’ participation in the program with judges and prosecutors and then monitor the progress of young people who participate in the CEP. The program helps to place court-involved youth in schools that meet their needs, provides on-site GED instruction, testing and college prep support. In addition, CEP provides employment training, paid internship opportunities, on-site mental health and substance abuse counseling, as well as extracurricular opportunities. In partnership with Youth Represent, CASES’ CEP also holds educational and legal seminars that help participants understand their rights. YSRP unfortunately does not have the capacity to directly provide any of the services that CASES provides to clients; instead, we make referrals to other existing social service agencies that each provide an aspect of the program that CASES runs in New York City.
New York Founding has also recently developed a program called Families Rising to provide support to children who come into contact with adult criminal court and their families. The program is currently being implemented at the New York Center for Juvenile Justice. Through Families Rising, staff work with families to break behavioral patterns that lead to court involvement. The program teaches skills classes on a variety of topics including decision-making and parenting, all of which are aimed at providing families and caregivers with key rehabilitative tools that will help them address the complex behavioral and psychological issues that initially led to a child’s court-involvement. In addition, like Esperanza, Families Rising works with families, schools and the court to ensure that court involved youth comply with curfews, are doing well at school, and receive counseling.
YSRP, like the NYC juvenile defense and justice nonprofits discussed in this post, is dedicated to meeting both the legal and non-legal needs of court-involved children. We believe that this approach is critical to securing the best possible outcomes for our clients in court, and to setting children up for long-term success. While our goals are similar to those of fellow juvenile defense and justice organizations, our service-delivery model differs in an important respect: Rather than directly representing clients in the way that Legal Aid’s CDP or the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem (or the Defender Association) does, we support attorneys representing children being tried as adults in the decertification and sentencing phases of criminal trials, or juvenile court trials if their cases are decertified. In addition, more similarly to how NYC organizations operate, we help court-involved young people and their families connect with existing community-based resources to ensure access to education, housing, healthcare and job placement.
Don’t Throw Away the Key- Perspectives on Juvenile Life Without Parole Sentences
By Angela Brosnan, Esq., YSRP Volunteer
When Jeanne Bishop, author and public defender in Cook County, Illinois told her 15 year old client that he was looking at 21 to 45 years as a sentence for armed robbery, he looked into her eyes blankly and told her “Miss Bishop, I can’t see that far.” Facing almost double the time in prison that he had spent alive, his incredulity was understandable.
On October 7, 2015, Ms. Bishop joined Marsha Levick, Esq., the Deputy Director and Chief Counsel of Juvenile Law Center, and Cindy Sanford, R.N., who has adopted a juvenile lifer in Pennsylvania, on a panel at the University of Pennsylvania Law School to discuss the Supreme Court’s abolition of mandatory life without parole for children in Miller v. Alabama (2012) in anticipation of the oral arguments in Montgomery v. Louisiana. After the panel, on October 13th, the Court heard arguments in Montgomery, and a synopsis can be found here. The Court’s decision in Montgomery will determine whether Miller will be applied retroactively. In Pennsylvania, the case will be most singularly felt by the 500+ prisoners- more than any other state in the country- sentenced as children to life without the possibility of parole. For these men and women, and their families and supporters, Montgomery represents the ultimate question: whether they will die in prison, forever labeled and defined by the worst day of their adolescence, or whether they will have a chance at eventual freedom.
The esteemed panel represented a spectrum of perspectives on the issue, from an attorney representing Mr. Montgomery (Levick), to the granddaughter of a New York City police officer turned reform advocate (Sanford), to a practicing attorney whose sister, brother-in-law and their unborn child were murdered by a teeneager (Bishop). Both Sanford and Bishop have recently written books on their personal experiences with the sentence of juvenile life without parole: Bishop is author of the book Change of Heart, which follows her journey since the death of her sister, Nancy Bishop Langert, who was shot at age 25 along with her husband and their unborn child by a 16 year old boy. Information on Bishop and her book can be accessed here. Cindy Sanford is an author and registered nurse who is a self-proclaimed “tough on crime” advocate. In her book, Letters to a Lifer, Sanford describes how she changed her views about juvenile offenders after corresponding with a young artist serving a life without parole sentence. Sanford’s blog can be accessed here.
In an engaging and emotionally charged dialogue, the panelists described their individual motivations for their steadfast commitment to the abolition of juvenile life without parole sentences. Bishop recalled that one of her law school professors, the noted jurist Guido Calabresi, charged his students with the duty to “shine light in dark places.” She explained that, for a child, an adult prison is a very dark place. She recounted her path towards forgiveness of the young man that took the life of her sister and her sister’s family and how that path eventually led her to advocate on his behalf.
Bishop emphasized her eventual realization that not everyone finds healing through retribution. Instead, her most effective mechanism for healing has been her attempts to identify with the young man who murdered her sister — to uncover his story and to “monopolize on his potential for redemption.” When asked about the most effective advocacy strategies for her juvenile clients, Bishop stressed that “you change people’s hearts and minds by telling stories.”
Cindy Sanford’s path to advocate on this issue was markedly different: A chance encounter brought her into contact with Ken, a 15 year old who had been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, from a town near to her own in rural Pennsylvania. Sanford owned an art shop and came across pieces that she soon learned were created by a young man in prison. She began to write to the young man, Ken, in efforts to purchase his art, and soon discovered much more about him: abused and abandoned by his parents and shuffled from foster home to foster home, Ken never completed seventh grade. It wasn’t until he was sent to prison that he discovered what he and Sanford describe as his “God-given talent.” Ken handpaints images from nature onto leaves that he collects from the prison yard. In essence, Ken’s depictions of natural beauty and wildlife function as an ironic representation of the adage “turning over a new leaf”– something that Ken will never be able to do outside of the prison walls that will confine him for the rest of his life.
This image of one of Ken’s paintings, along with a sampling of his other work, can be viewed here.
After engaging in correspondence with Ken over an extended period of time, Sanford began her work in advocacy and prison ministry. She described her experiences visiting juvenile lifers in prison. She was struck by the senselessness of juvenile life without parole sentences, which offer young people no hope, she noted, and no opportunities or incentives to demonstrate remorse. Turning from a “tough on crime” conservative to an advocate to end what she now views as fundamentally wrong policy, Sanford began to learn as much as she could about juvenile life without parole. After researching adolescent cognitive and behavioral development, and pairing these findings with her personal experiences meeting with juvenile lifers in prison, and as a registered nurse, she felt obligated to advocate against these sentences in her community.
Levick offered her perspectives on the legal landscape of juvenile life without parole sentences by first highlighting that the United States is the only country in the world that currently sentences juveniles to life without the possibility of parole. Comparing the United States to other western democracies, she stated that we are “way off the grid in terms of our desire for retribution.” She highlighted the Supreme Court’s holdings in Roper v. Simmons, Graham v. Florida, J.D.B. v. North Carolina, and Miller v. Alabama as indicia of hope that the nation’s highest court is beginning to recognize a young person’s inherent immaturity and corresponding amenability to rehabilitation.
Bishop stressed her frustration that, as a resident of Illinois, juvenile life without parole sentences were being applied by the state prosecutors and courts in her name. She stressed the importance of civic responsibility as advocates move forward to abolish this inhumane sentencing structure. Sanford echoed Bishop’s sentiment: “If we’re going to do it [sentence juveniles to life in prison without the possibility of parole], we’re going to do it knowingly. If you’re silent, it’s on you.”
A Teen’s Reflections on Teens Charged as Adults
by Julia Stern, YSRP Volunteer and 2015 Friends Central High School Graduate
Standing since colonial times, Philadelphia’s Court of Common Pleas is an industrial symbol of the history of justice at our nation’s core. The 20th century building that now houses the Court of Common Pleas sits wedged between the traffic loop around City Hall and the culinary attraction that is the Reading Terminal Market, the hustle and bustle through the doors and security lines parallels the disorder of our current system of justice. The interior, with wooden benches covered in etchings of “free so-and-so” and courtrooms characterized by their stark racial and economic divide, presents a striking contrast to the public’s perception on the efficacy of “tough on crime” policies. But, beyond the collateral economic and societal consequences of mass incarceration, is the devastating impact our nation’s penal system has on the youth population, particularly those tried as adults.
From my internship with the Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project (YSRP), a nonprofit working to better the outcomes of juveniles tried as adults, I’ve learned much more about this flawed system in which we’ve entrusted the safeguard of our nation; one with mandatory minimums and unforgiving penalties that allow 13 year olds to be sentenced to adults prisons where they’re deprived of adequate health and rehabilitative services, are subject to isolation, and are socialized into criminal culture. Transfer laws and automatic offender eligibility leave insufficient room for courts’ discretion and consideration of individual circumstances. Nor do they leave room for the evaluation of research that shows that youth are not only anatomically and psychologically less culpable than their elders, but also more amenable to rehabilitation.
My work has also opened my eyes to racial disparity in our nation’s justice system on a local level. I’ve seen white youth from affluent suburban neighborhoods apprehended for misdemeanors, dismissed with a warning and their records expunged, while just 9 miles away their black counterparts are tried and sentenced for the same charges. Contributing to these disparities are a number of different things: communities suffering from underfunded education, in areas of high unemployment, and exposure to poverty, as well as racial bias, excessive school policing and zero tolerance policies that incriminate youth for minor infractions. The irony here is that these “tough on crime” policies have detrimental, adverse effects. Criminal records create grave legal barriers for the formerly incarcerated upon reentry and interfere with nearly every aspect of everyday life. Unemployable and unable to obtain public assistance or housing, 68% of these people return to prison after just 3 years. Where we are investing in more beds and steel bars for additional cells, we should be investing in rehabilitative programs that keep people from entering and reentering prison.
The system, with punitive methods and crippling ramifications, has strayed so far from its commitment to rehabilitative justice, as both a deterrent and as an agent of reform.
Along with policy and legal reforms, reducing federal crimes, and giving judges flexibility, law enforcement needs to become more familiar with the communities they patrol, and members of the judicial system must do a better job of considering individual circumstances. We need to ensure better, more effective legal counsel for our youth and involve families in the process. As a community, we should be investing in preventative and rehabilitative programming that keep youth from entering or reentering prison.