By Christopher Zoukis
It’s spring break for many around the country, but at the Barack Obama White House, the focus is on events to promote Administration initiatives aimed at making it easier for ex-prisoners to re-enter mainstream society.
In its final months, the Administration plans to keep pushing measures it believes will improve re-assimilation of the over 600,000 persons released each year from federal and state prisons, plus the 11.4 million passing annually through local jails, by addressing employment, housing and other barriers.
Here’s a quick review of what’s already happened, plus a look-ahead to what’s slated to follow:
Launching a drive for commitments by private-sector employers to erase barriers preventing persons with criminal records from finding jobs, in an April 12 event, the White House unveiled its drive for what it’s calling the “Fair Chance Pledge.” With Attorney General Loretta Lynch, senior presidential advisor Valerie Jarrett and other Administration officials participating, the kick-off highlighted varying pledges from 19 companies (including some giants like Google, Coca-Cola and Unilever, but also Busboys and Poets, the six-location Washington restaurant where the president recently hosted a lunch for some former prisoners after making clemency announcements).
Company commitments vary, but pledge signers vow to support economic opportunity for released inmates. The White House says it’s inviting other businesses to join the effort and will publish an updated list of pledge signers later this year.
Another prominently mentioned example in the “Fair Chance” pledge of an employment obstacle for ex-offenders is companies asking applicants about any criminal record at the start of the hiring process. The pledge asks companies to support “Ban the Box” bills; the federal government has already proposed similar restrictions for federal agencies and contractors.
As well, April 24-30 has been designated by the Justice Department as National Reentry Week. The agency says reentry events will also be held at federal prisons and elsewhere to help inmates prepare for their release. The White House further says it will hold an as-yet-unscheduled Champions of Change event highlighting local leaders working with the private sector or charitable groups on programs to aid the reentry and rehabilitation of former inmates.
Early in April, the general counsel’s office at the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) issued new guidance for private-sector landlords, advising that a blanket refusal to rent to would-be tenants because of a prior arrest or conviction violates the Fair Housing Act. The agency had earlier delivered a similar message to public housing landlords.
That law explicitly requires non-discriminatory treatment of applicants and tenants based on factors such as race, religion, disability and national origin, but HUD used a “disparate impact” analysis, under which even actions not intended to discriminate can be struck down if it both has a disproportionate impact on a protected group and is not shown to be necessary to achieve a legitimate purpose. In a 5-4 Supreme Court decision last year (Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. The Inclusive Communities Project, Inc.), the Supreme Court authorized “disparate impact” analysis in Fair Housing Act cases. Landlords may exclude applicants with a criminal history of drug production or distribution, which is outside the act’s scope.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com