Enabling felons who have completed their sentences to return to productive lives was the theme of a Congressional Briefing conducted online on December 2. The briefing was hosted by the Congressional Research Institute for Social Work and Policy (CRISP) and the Center for Social Development.
Moderated by Charles Lewis Jr. of CRISP, Undoing Racism by Eliminating Debilitating Criminal Penalties was a highly informative discussion by the panelists: Carrie Pettus-Davis, associate professor and director of the Institute for Justice Research Development at Florida State University; Cedric Hendricks, associate director of the Court Services and Offender Supervision in Washington, DC; Margaret Love, executive director of the Collateral Consequences Resource Center; and David Muhammad, executive director of the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform.
Opening remarks were offered by U.S. Rep. Karen Bass, D-CA, an original co-sponsor of the REDEEM Act, legislation that would ease the barriers to re-entry for individuals convicted of felonies. The Act would expunge or seal records of offenses committed by children and provide a way for adults to seal non-violent criminal records after completing their criminal penalty.
“Expungement is a critically important issue,” Bass said. “We need a way for people to redeem themselves and be reintegrated into society.” Otherwise, she said, broad, indiscriminately applied barriers to employment, housing and other necessities can lead to “a sentence for life.” The legislation was introduced in the House in 2019, and Bass said backers will renew their efforts in the upcoming Congress. The legislation has support from both Republicans and Democrats.
Lewis noted that the legislation, if approved, would apply only to the 12 percent of felony convictions under federal law. “But it’s a start,” he said, noting that a disproportionately high number of Black Americans have felony convictions.
Pettus-Davis said about 13 million Americans cycle in and out of jail and prison each year. “There are lifelong consequences to having a criminal history,” she said, and current methods of treating people who have been incarcerated aren’t working, resulting in high recidivism rates. “We have a quilt of federal and state policies that exclude access to employment, housing, education, to family reunification. If we want to drive the 77 percent recidivism rate down, we need to allow access to opportunities.”
She recommended a sweeping examination of exclusionary policies and their impact. The field of social work, which largely focuses on work with individuals, should take a broader view, she said. “I really think social work needs to pay more attention to increasing opportunity in community or we’re not going to move the needle,” she said. Equity needs to be a major focus, as the criminal justice system disproportionately impacts the Black community. “We need to find out whether reforms achieve equity or make things worse.”
Hendricks, a leader in the agency that supervises 9,500 probationers and parolees in Washington, suggested a hands-on approach is best suited to deliver what parolees need most: jobs. Half of convicted felons who are employable are unemployed, he said, and efforts are needed to persuade businesses to overturn policies against hiring felons.
“It really requires engagement with employers to turn ‘nos’ into ‘yeses,’” he said, noting the success of the “Hire One” program to encourage employers to start with a single former convict. “They have the job skills to meet your needs.” Another success, he said, was persuading the district’s public transportation system to suspend its policy against hiring felons for a year.
Employers must be convinced that applicants have the skills to do the job, with a minimal risk of hiring them. He said that expungement of criminal records is controversial, with opposition from businesses and prosecutors. “Until that gets sorted out, it’s not going to happen,” he said, even in a progressive city like Washington.
Love was the U.S. Pardon Attorney in the Justice Department from 1990-97, overseeing the executive clemency program. She said most of the recent policy action has come at the state level, where 154 new laws were passed in the last year to deal with problems arising from the use of criminal records.
“Congress has not done as well,” she said. “Federal offenders have little relief,” which is why there is an overreliance on pardons, with nearly 3,000 applications now pending. Controversy over President Donald Trump’s use of the pardon power may be “an unintended gift” to bring the issue to light, she said. Bills in Congress would replace pardons as the sole relief, and have attracted support from both parties.
“There’s a lot of bipartisan buy-in for criminal-record issues,” she said, citing recent pressure on the administration to change rules barring people with felony convictions from getting small-business loans under the CARES Act, the legislation responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.
One bill would authorize federal courts to issue certificates of rehabilitation, which could help convince employers, especially if the certificates are signed by judges, she said. She was less certain about the value of expungement, as some fear restricting background checks would increase discrimination. “I’m not so sure we can sell felony expungement in a lot of states, so we should be looking for some alternatives,” she said.
Focusing on convictions rather than just imprisonment — most people who are convicted of felonies don’t go to prison — was important, she said, and efforts such as the relaxation licensing standards for trades and professions by eliminating “good moral character” standards can be effective.
Other options are available to the administration of President-Elect Joe Biden. “There are tremendous opportunities for the new administration to enable people to get back on their feet and regain their full rights of citizenship,” she said.
Muhammad, the former head of probation in Alameda County, CA, called the criminal justice system “ineffective, harmful and needlessly expensive.” Felony convictions can be barriers to food stamps, public housing, federal financial aid for college and voting. Incarcerated individuals can learn to be barbers or firefighters while behind bars, but not allowed to work at those jobs upon release. “It’s nonsensical,” he said.
Providing states with incentives to expand expungement of criminal records, making Pell grants available to all deserving applicants and giving credit for classes attended in prison would help. Barring housing discrimination against people with criminal records is also key, Muhammad said. While the Department of Housing and Urban Development doesn’t restrict federal housing to felons other than sex offenders and some public-housing related drug offenses, many local agencies do.
Expungement is important not only to expand eligibility for work and other benefits, he said, but also as an incentive to former convicts to stay clean. It’s especially important for juveniles. “If you’re charged as an adult, that stays with you forever,” he said. “Juveniles need to be able to go into adulthood with a clean slate.”