Closer Look: The “who” in our work

The Justice and Accountability Center of Louisiana (JAC) promotes criminal justice reforms by developing and advocating for sensible, cost-effective policy that adheres to the tenets of fundamental rights and human dignity. In pursuing these ends, we recognize the state of incarceration both at a national and state level as grossly inflated. The human footprint of this nation’s prisons has grown exponentially since the 1980s when “zero tolerance” policies were enacted and private facilitation came into vogue[1]. Now, in the shadows of an incarcerated population exceeding 2 million Americans, annual expenditures surpass even higher education commitments in many states[2]. The result is a radically transformed landscape, wrecking communities, tearing families apart, and leveraging billions of dollars for outcomes that have provided few observable results. Social scientists largely agree that this expansive network of prisons and a deterrence-oriented policy direction has done little to reduce crime and may have inadvertently created a permanent underclass of people stuck between the label of prison and conventional society. Those previously incarcerated carry the weight of their crime’s consequences beyond the jailhouse, often leaving them out of employment and housing opportunities that could offer them the necessary support to properly reintegrate into society. It is now the responsibility of public and private organizations to convene and develop comprehensive strategies for reducing this footprint.

As part of this effort, JAC is piloting a new program that incorporates the realities of the prison label and reintegration with the financial restrictions that many are often confronted within their post-incarcerated life. While part of the stigma associated with prison is social, there is a formal component – a record – that can follow someone over the lifetime. Fortunately, the state provides us with an option. The records of the past can be sealed or “expunged” from the public record. This may seem small, but by having a record expunged people can more successfully reintegrate. Opportunities for gainful employment are more easily obtained and those with well-paying jobs are more likely to avoid repeat offending. This option can free up many options, but is restrictive in itself. The sheer cost associated with expungements can be prohibitive, particularly among those on fixed incomes and those who have yet to secure employment. It is not difficult to envision a cycle by which people – unable to secure employment following incarceration – are unable to pay for their own expungement; an expungement that could help that clear their public record.


JAC recognizes the discrepancies between accesses to expungements as a potential source of recidivism and as such, seeks to remedy this. It is imperative that public and private organizations prioritize initiatives that can effectively reduce recidivism and give people a chance to properly reintegrate. This is a direction that is both compassionate and morally-just, as well as fiscally sensible. With our work, JAC’s Clean Jacket program operates with the explicit goal of providing those formally incarcerated and concurrently lacking the financial resources an opportunity to obtain the resources needed for formal expungement. As part of this, the following explores “the who” of this program by looking at those people who have sought assistance and those the program aims to assist.

AGE

When examining people by age, what emerges is largely an even distribution of need across groups. The Federal Bureau of Prisons estimates that the largest group represented under incarcerated state supervision is between the ages of 36 and 40, with the second largest age groups being between 31-35 and 41-45[3]. This is reflected in the candidate population, with a greater need being among those groups at peek employment ages. Most interesting to note is how older age groups represent nearly a quarter of the population. As the prison population ages[4], the average age at release will likely increase and the need for expungements – presumably in the domain of housing – will increase as time goes on.


RACE/ETHNICITY

It is hard to ignore the stark realities of race disparity in jail and prison settings. Given the disproportionate number of those under state supervision (e.g. incarceration, parole, probation) by race, it is not all that striking to see a high need among people of color in a post-release setting. American Americans represent 87% of those seeking counsel and assistance from JAC. All other racial groups represent the remaining 13% of need. These numbers may be related to two sources of influence. First, it may underscore the overlap the often exists between communities of color and concentrated poverty. As people of color may have a harder time finding suitable employment opportunities sans any formal record[5], this is undoubtedly magnified among those that have been previously incarcerated. Disparities in resource access also continue to be a problem among African Americans and Hispanics, where recidivism is higher than their white counterparts. Second, this is likely reflective of demographics in the prison population. In Louisiana alone, the incarceration rate of adult black males is 1 in 20[6], representing nearly 38,000 people or 68% of all sentenced prisoners.

HOUSING STATUS AND INCOME

On both how and where a person lives and their annual income can approximate whether a person is financially secure and prepared to take on any additional “discretionary” costs. Given the possibility of discrimination among those formally incarcerated when in the search for conventional housing, it should be expected that transitory or temporary housing be commonplace. Among those seeking assistance, nearly 80% of people lived in non-permanent housing situations. This may speak to the difficulties in finding housing with a criminal record and what limited options are open.

Equally, income becomes a latent representation of access to conventional employment and housing. When people have stable jobs, it stands to reason that more secure, permanent housing situations will arise. For those living at or below the poverty belt, most will be excluded from the financial architecture needed to support homeownership and so temporary housing is often the only option. As per Federal poverty guidelines, a single individual earning below $12,000 is considered to be under the poverty line[7]. This, of course, only tells part of the story and is not truly reflective of regional differences in cost-of-living. Among those seeking assistance, 67% earned between 0 and $12,000 dollars and only about 14% earned more than $24,000 – the standard income needed for a family of four to be above the poverty line.

DISCRIMINATION

Among candidates, 68% of identified previous employment discrimination as – what they perceived to be – was a product of their criminal record.

While the number isn’t nearly as high, 27% of candidates echoed this sentiment in the domain of housing. What ties both housing status and personal income is the realities that those previously incarcerated must face. It is not hyperbole to speak about the perpetuation of poverty as part of the prison experience and the subsequent formal labeling. When those with records seek an avenue to conventional employment or wish to find stable, secure housing, they must often confront the realities of their past. As of 2017, no federal guidelines prohibit the discrimination of non-violent offenders seeking employment or housing and only 9 states have some rule regarding private employers and disclosing past criminal record. While no “ban the box” initiative has ruled discrimination in employment or housing has taken place in Louisiana, the state has taken an early lead in becoming the first state to ban prejudicial judgments based on record in the domain of higher education[8].

PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER

Examining the people who we serve helps JAC better prepare and adapt to each individual’s unique needs. It also helps further identify communities that continue to lack resources on both a micro and macro scale. JAC seeks to reach people by offering the tools needed to take their life back. It is unquestionable that the deleterious effects of a criminal record can hold people down, limiting their opportunities in employment, skill development, education, and safe housing. By piloting the Clean Jacket Expungement program, we can work to close resource gaps and give people who lack the necessary means a shot at their “second chance.” Policy makers would be wise to follow a similar model if they seek to reduce the prison footprint, reduce the human cost of mass incarceration, and balance state coffers. Program effectiveness should drive policy on criminal justice, particularly when it concerns reintegration. Costs to society should not be retroactive and persistent, but should be paid in due time, eventually allowing people the chance to transcend their label. Programming that focuses on the larger goal of reducing recidivism will do just that. JAC maintains that programs that offer to bridge resource and knowledge gaps are best positioned to give people the proper opportunity at reintegration.

[1] Mears, D. P., & Cochran, J. C. (2015). Prisoner Reentry in the Era of Mass Incarceration. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

[2] Lobosco, K. (2015, October 1). 11 states spend more on prisons than on higher education. Retrieved from CNN Money: http://money.cnn.com/2015/10/01/pf/college/higher-education-prison-state-spending/index.html

[3] https://www.bop.gov/about/statistics/statistics_inmate_age.jsp

[4] http://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/analysis/2014/10/03/prison-population-continues-to-age

[5] http://fortune.com/2014/11/04/hiring-racial-bias/

[6] United States Department of Justice. Office of Justice Programs. Bureau of Justice Statistics. National Prisoner Statistics, 1978-2014. Bibliographic Citation: ICPSR36281-v1. Ann Arbor, MI: Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research [distributor], 2015-10-09; U.S. Census Bureau (2013). 2013 Population Estimates. Annual estimates of resident population by sex, race, and Hispanic origin for the United States, states and counties: April 1, 2010 to July 1, 2013. Washington, DC: U.S. Census Bureau.

[7] https://aspe.hhs.gov/poverty-guidelines

[8] https://www.insidehighered.com/quicktakes/2017/06/19/louisiana-becomes-first-state-ban-box

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