America is finally waking up and realizing its drug and criminal justice policies are failing its own citizens. Especially those with a substance use disorder.
A bi-partisan coalition in the U.S. Congress is now pushing for serious reform of our justice system -- with support from both the Koch brothers and President Obama -- which institutionalizes the warehousing of millions of people and treats substance use as a crime deserving jail time rather than a health disorder needing treatment. This new wave of reform needs to ensure that once people with substance use disorders leave prison or probation, they are not confronted with insurmountable barriers to employment, education, housing, health care and other necessities.
The American Bar Association identified no less than 45,000 barriers to reentry for people with criminal records. Many of these deserve to be toppled, but singularly onerous obstacles confront millions of people with criminal records that include drug offenses.
For example, if you ever worked any job in a health facility -- doctor, nurse, lab technician, food service, or janitor to name a few -- and are convicted of a drug felony, you will be barred from further work in the health care industry for a minimum of five years and possibly more. Furthermore, employers often reject hiring suitable prospective employees after learning their histories. And there are thousands of other unfair restrictions on employment like these for people with histories of addiction.
Sanctions against people with drug convictions also create obstacles to education, housing and public benefits -- the very things we know reduce recidivism and make communities safer, healthier and better places to live.
For example, impoverished Americans trying to keep their families afloat can be permanently denied access to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits if they have drug felony convictions. This is true even for those with substance use disorders who are successfully treated and spend years in recovery if they happen to live in one of the twelve states that still have the full ban on SNAP, TANF or both.
Moreover, the Higher Education Act denies Americans with drug convictions financial aid if they want to attend or remain in college. Just one mistake made when they were young can block their access to higher education.
These harsh sanctions make no sense.
Student aid is a stepping stone to success and self-sufficiency, and public benefits provide the minimum support many Americans need to survive. Incarcerated people also are denied study grants even though research shows higher education is one of the most effective ways to prevent future criminal behavior. Denying any American, incarcerated or not, these resources is counter-productive to becoming successful and contributing members of our society.
Housing is vital to successful re-entry after incarceration. Yet publicly funded and private housing is often unavailable to people with criminal records and their families. For example, landlords and public housing authorities have a great deal of leeway to keep people with drug convictions out of federally-assisted housing. They can do this without considering other factors about the individuals who apply, such as character references and evidence of successful treatment. Landlords and housing authorities, who reflexively shut doors on people with drug histories, are contributing to the epidemic of homelessness sweeping America's cities and towns.
Specific remedies are available. To help address the student aid problem, President Obama recently moved to expand access to Pell Grants in prison. Congress should build on this momentum by passing the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA) and REAL Act, which supports postsecondary education in prison and prepares those returning home for a global economy.
The inexcusable federal bans on SNAP and TANF should be eliminated. The REDEEM Act, sponsored by Senators Corey Booker (D-NJ) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.), would take a significant step in this direction, eliminating the ban for some offenses and providing a mechanism for people to have their benefits restored.
Restrictions on housing and employment may be appropriate in some cases, but across-the-board criminal record bans should be eliminated so that each case is considered individually. Decision-makers should account for the nature of an applicant's crime, how it relates to the opportunity they are seeking, how long ago it occurred and other aspects of their life that show how they have changed, learned, become healthier, or otherwise improved themselves. The Legal Action Center provides more specific recommendations for policy and advocacy on these issues here and here.
Easing the path to re-entry after prison is only part of the challenge confronting our criminal justice system. A broad range of other reforms are necessary, including those that ensure life-saving addiction treatment is available to justice-involved individuals. These include diversion programs to treatment facilities and more widespread use of Medication Assisted Treatment for individuals with opioid addictions, among others.
Once Americans with substance use disorders pay their debts to society, they deserve a chance to rebuild their lives. Ultimately it is in this country's interest to help them to do so. To make that possible, we need to eliminate harmful criminal record barriers and restore their civil rights and liberties.
Paul N. Samuels is Director/President of the Legal Action Center, a non-profit public interest law firm with offices in New York City and Washington, D.C. specializing in legal and policy issues involving alcohol and drug abuse and dependence, AIDS and criminal justice. He is a national expert on drug policy and criminal justice with more than three decades of experience as an advocate, lawyer, lecturer, and nonprofit leader, Co-Chair of the national Coalition for Whole Health, the inaugural Chair of New York State's Behavioral Health Services Advisory Council, and a member of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo's Council on Community Reentry and Reintegration.
This post is part of a series produced by facingaddiction.org, in conjunction with their event Unite to Face Addiction (Saturday, Oct. 4, National Mall, Washington, D.C.). The blogs are also part of The Huffington Post's "What's Working" solutions-oriented journalism initiative. For more information on facing addition, visit www.facingaddiction.org.