We are a society committed to the principle of equal justice under the law and our system is based on the principle that the punishment should fit the crime. When a person completes a prison sentence they are said to have paid their debt to society. When a person is arrested but not charged, they owe society no debt. Yet in both cases, their punishment is usually far from over.
Last week was designated the first-ever National Reentry Week by the U.S. Department of Justice (USDOJ), an effort to call attention to the need to address the numerous barriers facing people with a criminal record. Central to this initiative should be a recognition of the need for adequate resourcing of organizations that provide free or low-cost legal representation intended to give people a meaningful second chance within a system that often sets them up to fail.
As the USDOJ notes, more than 600,000 individuals are released from federal and state prisons every year. Almost one in four Americans encounter the criminal justice system and most of that is for minor, non-violent offenses. But it is well-known that any criminal record will likely result in rejection for job applicants (a penalty that is experienced to a highly unequal degree along racial lines), and is an immediate disqualifier for many professional licenses.
With no job or income, people often need the assistance of government programs just to survive, such as access to public or subsidized housing, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that prevents families from going hungry. But a criminal record can block those, too - the person most excluded from opportunity is also barred from anti-poverty programs, relegated to a life on the fringes of society. This is often true even for people whose offenses occurred many years earlier.
Not only is this unfair, but these conditions are among the strongest predictors of recidivism, which is far more likely within the first year after a prisoner's release. Investing in successful reentry makes our communities safer, and helping people get their lives on track quickly is crucial, but this opportunity is missed when insufficient resources mean that legal aid is unavailable to at least half of eligible people that seek help. Legal services can help mitigate a criminal record and secure access to programs that open the door to a second chance, just as they did for Henry.
When Henry first walked into the Clean Slate Program at the East Bay Community Law Center (EBCLC) in California, he faced seemingly insurmountable obstacles as a result of his criminal record. Six months later he had started a job with a city agency, and he has since gained a professional license and become a homeowner.
The program assists in records expungement (in some circumstances criminal records can be removed from public access), and provides representation in claims of unfair denial of access to public assistance and employment opportunities. This offered Henry a lifeline that allowed him to break the familiar cycle of poverty and crime.
This example demonstrates the power of advocates for civil justice, but criminal court-based remedies are often just as crucial. The Clean Slate Program collaborates with the Alameda County Public Defender to provide comprehensive "holistic" representation, increasing both the scope of services available to individuals and the overall number of people both offices can serve. The public defender works on strategies such as early termination of probation, reduction of felonies to misdemeanors, and expungement, while the civil program advises and represents these same clients, like Henry.
Dedicated investment in collaborative partnerships that leverage resources and expertise is necessary if our country is serious about making "second chances" a meaningful reality. Melissa Ader, an Equal Justice Works Fellow, is working at The Legal Aid Society in NYC to provide direct representation and community education to low-income New Yorkers with criminal records thanks to support from AIG and Sullivan & Cromwell LLP. Bay Area Legal Aid, also based in California, has strong links with community organizations and government entities, including employment development programs, transitional housing providers, county probation, and mental health services and substance abuse treatment programs.
These relationships were critical in helping Nick, an autistic client, appeal a denial of permanent low-income housing. Nick lacked the coping skills to handle numerous individuals who had taken advantage of him by squatting in his home and he physically attacked one of them. Working with his case manager and public defender, BayLegal was able to draw on the relevant facts from his underlying criminal case, as well as his substantial mental health history, and successfully advocate for his admission into subsidized housing.
Just as crucial as providing access to justice for someone like Nick are efforts to change the laws and policies that perpetuate unfair disadvantages. Impact litigation and education efforts can challenge under-enforcement of protections and discrimination based on criminal records that may be illegal. Limited resources can impede a legal services program's capacity to educate policymakers and highlight the consequences of damaging policies, which is unfortunate, as education is often a highly effective strategy for providing stability and opportunity to vast numbers of people at once.
In Louisiana, a state that incarcerates more of its residents than anywhere else in the world, systemic change is a vital method for providing justice to a reentering population that far outstrips the supply of legal services. Just last month, Southeast Louisiana Legal Services (SLLS) proved how invaluable these efforts are by helping to convince the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) to lift its ban on providing assistance for affordable housing to low-income people with criminal records.
Federal agencies are starting to recognize the impact legal services can make - this week the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded HANO and SLLS a Juvenile Reentry Assistance Program grant to support successful reentry for youth living in public housing, or who would be living in public housing but for their juvenile or criminal record. This is one of many laudable efforts, but we must go much further. At a minimum, federal funding for the Legal Services Corporation must be protected when the House of Representatives considers appropriations bills next month. Rectifying the funding crisis in public defense would allow more programs to dedicate time and resources to laying the foundations for a client's successful reentry. Federal entities must continue to lead by example, by following policies that look past an individual's criminal record, and asking others to do the same.
Giving someone a fair shot to rebuild their life after justice has been served is a fundamental American value. Moreover, policies and practices that make it possible for a person to contribute positively to society promote healthier communities and improve public safety.
This is a guest post from Jo-Ann Wallace, the President & CEO of the National Legal Aid & Defender Association. NLADA is America's oldest and largest nonprofit association devoted to the excellence in the delivery of legal services to those who cannot afford counsel, and the only national organization whose resources are dedicated exclusively to advancing both civil and criminal justice for low income people.