Sunday, August 18, 2013

Incarceration, Education and Home

My daughter, Chloe, is interning at one of the new Seattle Housing Authority housing complexes, New Holly, while she is working toward her Masters Degree in Social Work at the University of Washington.  She thought I’d be interested in attending a discussion among her colleagues at New Holly and a group of non-profit housing providers talking about their policies toward admitting people into public housing who have criminal records.

While the Seattle Housing Authority’s policies do not mean that a criminal conviction will result in a denial of housing, it automatically defers any consideration for one year of an applicant or applicant’s family member if the person has been convicted of a Class A felony and incarcerated.  A partial list of those crimes listed on SHA’s site includes:

Arson, Assault, Burglary, Explosives, Extortion, Homicide, Kidnapping, Leading organized crime, Machine gun use in felony, Malicious explosion of substance, Malicious placement of an explosive, Manslaughter, Possession of explosive device, Possession, manufacturing or disposal of incendiary devices, Robbery, Setting a spring gun, Trafficking, Treason.

New Holly
Seattle Housing Authority
Applicants or family members are automatically denied if they are currently using illegal drugs, have been engaged in metamphetamine production, committed offenses that require sex offender registration, have a record indicating a pattern of alcohol abuse or a pattern of habitual criminal behavior. 

Keeping a safe environment for the people who live in public housing is clearly a paramount responsibility of the Housing Authority.  Beyond the physical safety that is fundamental, there are other economic factors as well.  For example, most of the new housing authority projects are now mixed income, with houses for sale where the income from the sale provides a subsidy back to the homes rented by lower income people.  Without an untainted sense of safety, the for-sale housing doesn’t work as intended and ultimately the subsidies flowing from the for-sale houses are less.

The housing authority enforces its policies by producing a criminal background and rental history credit check on each of its applicants.  These come from a number of criminal background data bases maintained by states – about 100,000,000 records in all – more than 90% of which can be accessed on the web. 

Background checks have become common in today’s human resources culture.  For example, 93% of employers conduct criminal background checks on some prospective employees while nearly 75% of employers perform criminal background checks on all their prospective employees.  Nearly all housing authorities make use of background checks, but the quality of the information they get is often poor. 

These records are searched and reports produced by a poorly known industry. Nobody really knows how many criminal background checking companies there are. There are big companies and there are one-man-band companies.  These businesses have grown up with the Internet and their employees or contractors are frequently dispersed and distantly supervised. There are no certificates or licenses required to do this work and often very little oversight. They are poorly regulated given how profoundly their work affects the lives of people  

Despite the housing authority’s efforts to get the best information available, it is not easy and it is costly to do the research necessary to verify the accuracy of information on the criminal backgrounds of applicants for housing.   There are many different types of errors.  Having a common name often leads to confusion in the database.  A Smith, for example, can be easily confused with other Smiths.  Many of these databases do not have the final disposition of a case.  If you've been arrested in the last five years, some databases do not have a record of any disposition of the case -- whether the case was dropped or you were found innocent or guilty.  Just 4% of the criminal database in Mississippi contain a disposition of the case within the last five years while 40% of Montana cases have a known disposition. Washington state is near the top, with 94% known dispositions of cases within the last five years, according to a US Justice Department review.  Also, the pure volume of information in these databases creates a growing backlog of updating that often cannot be met.  Frequently, companies in the criminal background business buy and sell information to one another that can lead to misleading data.  For example, one conviction can be reported several times, one felony arrest becoming five.  

We like to think that redemption is at the core of our criminal justice system, but as Jean Valjean, the lead character in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, points out to a woman on a Paris street, redemption does not come easily, then or now: 

“You want to know who I am?  I'm a convict! Yeah! I served my sentence.  Now my punishment begins, it seems. Look, in prison they gave me a bed of wood. Now I have one of stone. That's what they do when they set you free!”

Criminal databases, like Javert, the policeman who obsessively chases Valjean, are without the idea of redemption.  They do not distinguish between a mistake side-by-side with an otherwise ethical and productive life well-lived.  Like Javert, they focus on the mistake and ignore the life.  Someone else has to apply judgment and that doesn't come easily or without cost, time or questions.

US incarceration compared to European Union
The United States has a remarkable number of criminal database entries because we arrest, convict and incarcerate more people than anywhere in the world.  One in every four prisoners on the globe is imprisoned in the United States.  We are at the top of the incarceration chart according to Dr.  Alexes Harris, a University of Washington Sociology Professor who presented her work on incarceration at the meeting.  Our rate of incarceration is 762 people/100,000 population which totals to two and quarter million people behind bars or in prison today.  To this, add another seven million people under some kind of corrections supervision.  There are a total of 20,000,000 convicted felons living today in the United States, nearly nine percent of the population. 

This frenzy of incarceration has created massive aberrations in our governments and schools.  Many years ago, I was driving in a rental car through a dark night near Pendleton, Oregon.  I was listening to an interview with Clark Kerr, the famous University of California Chancellor who founded, in 1960, the modern university system that offered, for a time, near universal higher education in California and was seen as a model for the world.   

Clark Kerr with President Kennedy March, 1962
University of California Library
Kerr was near the end of his life and explained with great frustration that when he was head of the system, in 1960, the state of California spent 10% on higher education and 1% on its corrections.  In the year of the radio broadcast, I think it was 2000 or 2001, the state was still spending 10% on higher education, but now was also spending 10% of its budget on prisons.  Beginning in the late sixties, California increased its prison population by 500% as the courts were overwhelmed by the legislature mandating less judicial discretion and more determinate sentences like "Three Strikes" laws and no tolerance drug sentences. 

The effects of this trend, plus a stream of budget problems in the state, hit higher education hard.  A Stanford study done for the State of California says
Comparison of Corrections, Higher Ed
that between 1990 and 2008, higher education funding was reduced 40%.  Between 2008 and 2012, higher education funding lost an additional 28%.  Since 1980, prison spending has increased over 400%.  Fifty years after Kerr started an education structure that was the envy of the world, prison spending surged past higher education for the first time.  Today, California is one of a handful of states spending more for prisons than higher education. 

This has caused some perturbations throughout the system of governance in California.  Today, prison guards are the largest and most effective lobby in the state.  Even as the crime rate drops, the number of prison guards rises. And it is not only higher education that struggles from the financial demands of California’s gulag.  It is public safety in general.  Most local governments in California have seen reductions in public safety spending as prisons continue to suck up state money.  Today, the state of California spends as much on prisons as it did on all of law enforcement a decade ago.  According to the National Association of State Budget Officials, the average state expenditure for prisons across the US is just over seven percent of state budgets.

Kerr’s was a massive accomplishment, creating, for the first time, a state system of higher education that served the full range of higher education needs and interests.  It was an amazingly simple design.  The university plan developed by Kerr envisioned that the top 12.5% of high school graduates would be guaranteed a direct entry into the University of California, then eight campuses to be joined by two others a few years later.  This part of the system today is home to 235,000 students.  The top third of students would be provided access to the California State University system, 23 schools and 284,000 students.  Most of the state’s teachers come from those schools.  Everyone would have access to the Community College Network, now 73 colleges and 2.5 million students.  All would have the opportunity to move throughout the different elements of the system, based on merit.  In 1960, all were tuition free.  Students paid fees for food, dormitories, books and other costs, but no tuition.  It had its flaws, but it was radical, much admired and produced a constant stream of talent and opportunity that served business and government in California.  

Kerr articulated then, far ahead of his time, today’s information economy, driven by accomplishments of the men and women who would be prepared for it by his dazzling higher education system:

“What the railroads did for the last half of the 19th century, what the automobile did for the first half of this century, may be done for the second half of this century by the knowledge industry.”

Though he had a clear vision of the future, Kerr could not overcome the challenges of the present -- growing unrest at the Berkeley campus over civil rights, the calamity of Vietnam and the rise of Ronald Reagan.  Elected Governor of California in 1966 he immediately set out to find the votes, including his own, to fire Kerr and “clean up the mess in Berkeley."  In 1967, Kerr was fired “effective immediately.”

Famously, Kerr said:

“I came here fired with enthusiasm and left the same way.”

Kerr’s demise was the beginning of a long slide of his grand idea as tuition became more and more a part of the budget in higher education, rising to $13,200 today for the University of California schools, $7,025 at the state schools and about $50/credit at the community colleges.  Non-resident tuition rose to nearly $38,000 and the percentage of non-resident students rose to 23% from 11% as the schools traded off California children’s access to higher education for income to the system.    

At the community colleges, where inclusiveness ruled under Kerr, enrollment is down nearly 500,000 students as course offerings have been slashed, cost per unit has increased and teachers laid off.  The transfer from the two year schools to the four year schools is much harder to accomplish today.  The community colleges educate 70% of California’s nurses, 80% of its firefighters and 50% of its veterans. 

Now, you can’t lay all of it at the feet of a criminal justice system gone crazy.  The radical property tax limitation, Prop 13 and a couple of big recessions have played important roles, but the throw-away-the-key philosophy continues to erode California’s ability to pay for other important things.  In the frenzy to incarcerate, to want it all without paying for it, Californians have reduced their considerable contributions to our country and limited opportunities for its children.    

The problem with putting so many people in prison is that they must, at some point, be released.  Nearly 700,000 Americans were released from prison in 2012, more than 7,500 in Washington state and 1,500 people in King County, according to Professor Harris. 

Stable housing is among the critical factors keeping ex-convicts from returning to prison because, among other things, it helps in the formation of stable family relationships.  With housing and stable relationships in place, employment possibilities are far better.  With all three in place, not many people return to prison.  According to the Urban Institute, 40%-50% of ex-convicts will return to jail within five years.  By the way, the return to jail percentage in California is in the seventies.

The released prison population is not an easy population to house.  For several years, the Urban Institute followed nearly 300 released prisoners in Ohio and describes the members of that class this way:

Over 80% have a history of drug or alcohol abuse, 13% have a history of mental illness, 19% are illiterate, 40% are functionally illiterate.  Over 30% were unemployed before their arrest while 40% have not finished high school. 

More than half slept in a relative’s house their first night out of prison and 80% were living with a family member six months later, though less than half were paying any rent.

Amidst these distressing and depressing numbers, there are some points of light.  The US Supreme Court has capped the population of the California prison system and has reduced the size of California's prison population so that it fits better into the design of its prisons, though the goal is still 137% of design capacity.  Voters in California moderated the ‘Three Strikes’ law that was passed in 1994 and sent an alarming number of people to life in jail for minor offenses.  Three strikes will now only apply to violent crimes.  Today, dangerous and violent criminals will go to the state while less dangerous criminals will go to the counties with an emphasis on diversion from jail. California passed a tax increase last year to focus more of its criminal justice on diversion, among other improvements. It will be many years before the state truly reverses its decline into incarceration as a first choice, but it has started down that path.

There are small signs that the criminal backgrounding industry is starting to move toward a set of standards that could lead to a bit more fairness and accuracy.  Attorney General Eric Holder has made criminal backgrounding a serious issue at the federal level and lawsuits are correcting abuses.  There is also new research from Carnegie Mellon University that demonstrates what we know intuitively – that the longer a person is crime free, the less likely he is to commit crimes in the future.  Depending upon the crime and when it might have been committed, the researchers found the point at which someone in the general population is equally as likely to commit a crime as a former criminal.  If difficult judgments are to be made about who gets help or who gets prison, it is an important step to back it up with data.  I’ve attached the study.

There is also good news on the educational front.  California has new revenue for higher education, the first such increase since the last round of cuts began in 2008.

Along with some good news comes some bad news from the City of Richmond, California.  Its council just voted to bar businesses performing work for the city from knowing whether someone has a criminal background by removing the box in which a candidate acknowledges having a criminal background.  It also bars the use of criminal background checks as a condition of employment. This know nothing approach is no better than what the throw away the key crowd did in the first place. 

It is a very tough call for a housing authority or any of the non-profit providers in the room to change some of their tough rules on housing ex-convicts.  Most have waiting lists of people who have committed no crimes and also need affordable housing.  Most of them do not have the supportive service environment needed for many ex-convicts.  Most don’t have the staff time or money needed for confirming the accuracy of background checks and determining the true character of some very complicated individuals. 

As Chloe and I walked out I turned to her and told her I was glad she cared about this stuff.  I told her she had to hurry up and get her Masters degree and get to work on this mess we have handed to her and her colleagues.  

Redemption and Criminal Background Checks

New York Times Obit, Clark Kerr

Brown vs Plata, US Supreme Court Decision on Prison Overcrowding in California


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